HIDDEN PLACES OF POWER
When Paul Shambroom first had the idea of photographing nuclear weapons in 1989, it seemed a logical follow-up to his two earlier photographic series that explored "hidden places of power." Beginning in 1986, he had visited a number of factories and offices, making photographic portraits inside contemporary American workplaces. Out of these generally mundane if chaotic interiors, Sham broom wrested eloquent stililifes. Dominated by their striking formal qualities, these large color photographs reflect an aesthetic sensibility deeply responsive to the advent and infusion of new technologies in our daily surroundings.
If such places as General Mills and Winnebago Industries provided the photographer with fertile ground for his compositions, the interior workplaces of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal must have seemed like a gold mine. Also, gaining access offered a tantalizing professional challenge. In a letter to Rear Admiral Brent Baker in August 1990 to solicit support from the Department of the Navy, Sham broom wrote, "My photographs of these areas will not be strictly documentary. . . nor will they be meant to criticize or glorify. My intention is to present areas that have existed as powerful concepts in our collective consciousness." As the ultimate workplaces of hidden power, nuclear-weapons sites seemed like the final extension of this body of work.
It was only as the project got under way in earnest that Shambroom began to realize the depth of his emotional investment. As an American baby boomer who had grown up during the 1960s, "duck and cover" civil defense drills were among his strongest childhood memories, along with the accompanying elusive fear of nuclear war. His interest in photographing the nuclear arsenal grew stronger as he confronted his own feelings about its existence. The project was propelled by his desire to make visible these unseen places and, more specifically, to make the nuclear arsenal real for himself and others.
This is a project that easily might not have happened. Given the odds, it's remarkable that Shambroom gained entry to his first nuclear-weapons site at all. He says he might never have undertaken the project had he had any forewarning of what a difficult and lengthy process it would be. In a 1995 statement, he said he was operating on the idealistic belief that "I'm a citizen and taxpayer, this is my stuff, and if I ask the right people in the right way, they'll eventually let me in. " Two of the right people, he decided, were Senator Paul Wellstone and Congressman Martin Sabo, his representatives in Washington, D.C. Sabo provided Shambroom with his first leads at the Pentagon in the summer of 1990. For roughly the next year, his various requests to Pentagon officials were deliberated and denied, until an enterprising ensign at the Navy took the project under her wing and convinced authorities to allow the artist to photograph aboard one of its nuclear submarines while in port. It was in September 1991 that Sham broom finally received approval from the Navy to take photographs on a Trident submarine. It took almost another year of negotiations before he was allowed to visit the Bangor Submarine Base in Washington state. In the meantime, he received permission to photograph at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, which he visited in February 1992, and the project was under way.
Shambroom's persistence finally paid off, but he attributes his ultimate entry to nuclear-weapons sites to his timing. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the waning of the Cold War had resulted, he says, in a small but noticeable loosening of secrecy at nuclear-weapons facilities. Over the last three years, Sham broom has probably seen more deployed strategic nuclear weapons than most military specialists. He has visited 1 B sites, including five of the six "fields" where missiles are based, four bomber bases, the three primary strategic-command centers, and both nuclear submarine bases. On these visits he is usually accompanied by an escort, and his film is generally processed by military personnel and reviewed for security considerations before being returned to him. It should be pointed out that Shambroom is not photographing classified material. Rather, his photographs of the products of the Cold War, including the Peacekeeper missile, B-2 bomber, and Trident submarine, are intended for the public.
Though Sham broom experienced simultaneous horror and fascination while doing this work, his images seem surprisingly unencumbered. This deadpan quality allows the viewer to respond, without guidance, to these remarkable photographs: the quiet rows of wrapped Peacekeeper warheads; the exposed underbelly of a Minuteman II missile; the sleek, nearly invisible profile of the Stealth Bomber. A distinguishing characteristic of the Nuclear Weapons series is its stark realism. The photographer seems to be at full alert, confronting his subject head on, taking it all in with a sense of intense immediacy. It is only after one has had the chance to process the sheer wealth of fascinating new visual data in these images that their cumulative effect takes hold.
Shambroom's Nuclear Weapons series stands as an important document of America in the nuclear age, expanding our knowledge of the contemporary world and this new technology with which we all coexist. The invention of the first nuclear weapon 50 years ago forever altered the way we think about our world and our future. Succeeding generations have grown up with nuclear proliferation and the threat of global annihilation. If we have become numb to the capabilities of these invisible agents of nuclear readiness, Shambroom's images are powerful reminders of this reality with which we continue to live.
ELIZABETH ARMSTRONG EXHIBITION CO-CURATOR