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THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY

 

 

The history of photography has been a history of producing the visible. If we think of the word "visible" in terms of "truth," the meaning of this statement becomes clear: seeing is believing. From Plato's story of the cave with its dimly cast shadows inadequately approximating the light of day, Western culture has relied upon metaphors of the visible as indicators of knowledge, clarity, and reason. The invention of photography in the 1820s brought this societal obsession to a completely new level, casting away the uncertainties of Plato's shadowy realm of representations and replacing them with exact images of the world. With photography, a device was available that was thought to be capable of "fixing the shadow," of capturing the mirror image, of providing a truthful record of our fleeting reality. It is this function of photography, its directly indexical relationship to its object–in other words, photography's ability to capture the exact image of reality-that has haunted its history and occupied a central place in debates over this media's usefulness and its status as an art. In fact, photography historically has walked a precarious tightrope between the twin poles of scientific notation on the one hand and expressive aesthetic instrument on the other. But as Alice was to discover upon finding herself on the other side of the looking glass, mirror images are never quite as simple as they first appear.

 

Alice's journey through the looking glass has a parallel in Paul Shambroom's photographic odyssey through our culture's hidden places of power. In his exquisitely beau–tiful yet strangely haunting documentation of these sites, Shambroom's photographs reflect the often contra–dictory trajectories within the history of photography, manifesting a peripatetic wandering between the nota–tional and the aesthetic. It is this contested terrain of the history of documentation that provides the contex–tual backdrop of Shambroom's photographic project.

 

In the late 19th century, as some photographers attempted to establish this new medium's status as an art form, another group of photographers was using this technology to illuminate the unseen social truths of the late Industrial Revolution. Most notable among these photographers were Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who both employed their cameras to expose the dark side of industrial progress in the working-class tenements and fac–tories of New York. In Riis' case, this metaphor of illumination was particularly apt. He was among the first pho–tographers to employ the newly developed magnesium flash technology, making it possible to photograph the dimly lit living spaces of the poor and dispossessed, which were rarely made visible to the eyes of so-called prop–er society. The result of Riis' work was his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives, a tract that sought to amelio–rate the living conditions of the "other half" by exposing their poverty to a wide audience.

 

This book established the reformist agenda for what would come to be called documentary photography. The use of photography in the service of social reform is perhaps best known in the work of Dorothea Lange and the Farm Security Administration photographers of the New Deal. Whether in Lange's photographs of migrant labor–ers in California or Walker Evans' images of sharecroppers in the South, documentary takes on a rhetorical function, striking a delicate balance between the notational and the aesthetic in the service of a political agen–da. While these photographic documents of the American Depression did in fact provide a very concrete impe–tus to the social reform programs of the New Deal. it wasn't long until images such as Lange's famous Migrant Mother. Nipomo, California (1936) were being written into another script: that of the timeless expression of artistic genius. For what was emerging in the postwar period was the always implicit aesthetic moment of pho–tography. Isolated from their original historical contexts, many of these documents became ossified in an aes–thetic straitjacket that ignored the specificity of their original production. In the wake of this development came the powerful emergence of what was to be called "straight photography," promoted and popularized by such photographers as Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus.

 

Under the direction of John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art, a canon of straight photography was established dating back to the work of Edward Weston, Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and including the contemporary work of Friedlander, Winogrand, and Arbus. The role of straight photography was to establish the medium's status as an art once and for all. For photog–raphy to finally assert its aesthetic identity, so the argument went, it would have to free itself from the shack–les of the documentary tradition and instead exploit the formal qualities of the medium itself. The social meaning of the photograph was seen as a secondary concern, at least theoretically. Winogrand summed up this posi–tion by saying "I photograph to find out what the world looks like photographed."

 

While the formal precision and "straight" attitude of Shambroom's photographs place him within the history of this documentary lineage, there is another trajectory to his work, a legacy of estrangement that can be traced retroactively through the work of the Surrealists to that of the Soviet avant-garde and the earlier work of Eugene Atget. It was the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky who first broached the topic of artistic estrangement from the familiar in his 1917 essay "Art as Technique." According to Shklovsky, the role of art was to shock the public out of its banal, habitual way of seeing the world. By taking images of the familiar and "making them strange"-whether through poetic devices or by unconventional camera angles-Shklovsky argued that the public could be aroused from its dulled perceptions of the world in order to "recover the sensation of life." As he described it, "The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the dif–ficulty and length of perception."

 

We can trace the historical development of this strategy of "making strange" through Soviet photographers of the 1920s, such as Alexander Rodchenko and EI Lissitsky, to the later work of the Surrealists Man Ray, Andre Kertesz, and Brassai. But as Walter Benjamin pointed out in his 1931 essay "A Short History of Photography": "Atget's Paris photographs are the forerunners of Surrealist photography, advance troops of the broader columns Surrealism was able to field." Atget's photographs of strangely empty Parisian streets and mannequins in shop windows were to "strip the makeup from reality," in Benjamin's words, provoking the viewer to see these famil–iar sights in a new light. And Atget managed to accomplish this estrangement without recourse to the revolu–tionary camera angles employed by the Soviet avant-garde.

 

Shambroom's early Factory series 11986 -19881 is clearly documentary. However, each of these images shares clear affinities with both the legacy of straight photography and that of making strange. Whether in his photo–graph of the construction of a space-shuttle orbiter or that of a ferrous metal foundry, these color-rich pho–tographs clearly embrace the formal concerns of the medium. In their composition, color saturation, and technical precision, these images could easily be read as "photographs about photography." Yet in these as well as, among others, Shambroom's photograph of the production of penile implants taken at the Mentor Corporation in Minneapolis, there is also present what Walter Benjamin described as a stripping away of the makeup of real–ity. As we contemplate these images in terms of their aesthetic beauty, the strangeness of the subject matter begins to come forward, transforming what might at first seem like a straight photograph of the modern fac–tory into something quite uncanny.

images in terms of their aesthetic beauty, the strangeness of the subject matter begins to come forward, transforming what might at first seem like a straight photograph of the modern factory into something quite uncanny.

 

In Shambroom's next group of photographs, the Office series 11989-19901, we see the same meticulous con–cern with the formal qualities of the image. At the same time, there emerges an even stronger sense of estrange–ment than in his factory work. Employing a wider range of camera angles, these photographs conform more closely to Shklovsky's conception of making strange. One photograph delivers a high-angle take on an exposed floor panel. Looking through the photographer's feet, the viewer is confronted by a labyrinthine morass of phone and computer lines. The image is imbued with a kind of photographic vertigo, the photographer standing on the precipice of post-industrial technology. Another image brings the camera down to the level of the floor to pro–vide a genuinely disorienting view of the underside of a corporate board table. Difficult to make out at first, this photograph renders the boardroom a dark, melancholy, even menacing environment in which the carpeting, chairs, and table legs take on the identity of an alien landscape. In both of these images, the office begins to speak a decidedly different language than that of corporate public relations.

 

Both the formal concerns of the factory series and the estrangement of the office photographs have informed the artist's latest work. If Shambroom's earlier images conformed at least in part to Shklovsky's conception of making strange, his Nuclear Weapons series 11992-19951 presents the viewer with objects and spaces that need no help in this area. While these images are somewhat disturbing, it is not simply a function of the pho–tographer manipulating the formal qualities of the image. The weapons sites themselves are part of a larger societal unconscious concerning the nuclear age, an unconscious haunted throughout the Cold War by the specter of nuclear war. Indeed, by painstakingly negotiating the terrain of governmental bureaucracy, Shambroom was able to obtain access to these nuclear-weapons sites. In so doing, the artist is able to give the viewer rarely seen glimpses of the machinery of the Cold War, a technology that by the artist's own admission manifests paradoxical levels of horror and fascination.

 

Shambroom's nuclear images establish an almost clin–ical view of these weapons and installations, retaining many of the qualities of formal composition of his earli–er work. As we look at these photographs, however, it becomes clear that these are unlike any other work–places and only exist as a corollary to the presence of massive nuclear arsenals. In Shambroom's image of hooded nuclear warheads in storage with an armed guard at the end of the building, or his photograph of an Air Force technician installing warheads on a Peacekeeper missile, the destructive potential of these weapons man–

ifests itself psychologically, overwhelming the formal beauty of the images. In making these weapons sites visi–ble, Shambroomunveils the results of 50 years of nuclear-arms development, production, and deployment.

 

Conforming in part to the aesthetic strategies of straight photography, these images are resolutely beautiful, mirroring the seductive qualities of these modern technologies themselves. At the same time, there is an insis–tent call to recognition in these photographs; they bring to light a social reality that constitutes an underlying fabric of our everyday life. In one photograph, an Advanced Cruise Missile sits patiently in a paint-drying booth manifesting an almost voracious, sharklike appearance. In another, an Air Force technician sweeps the floor around a long row of nuclear-gravity bombs, each with the capacity to destroy major metropolitan areas. A third image depicts a technician being engulfed by the first-stage motors of a Minuteman II missile prior to its place–ment in its silo. Each of these photographs documents a particular aspect of our nuclear reality, confronting the viewer with visual evidence of the banality and ubiquity of nuclear weapons in a world forever transformed by their existence.

 

Shambroom's photographs of nuclear-weapons sites operate as a visual record of a war in potentia that has not yet happened. They also bring to light a war that has in fact been happening since that fateful day in August 1945 when nuclear weapons were used in a military conflict for the first and last time. Sham broom's images act as a kind of recuperative memory of this psychological war of the nuclear age, providing the viewer with the haunting evidence of a nuclear legacy that we inhabit to this day. Like the White King in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, who was inadvertently terrorized by an invisible Alice and needed to record his fear, Shambroom's photographs of nuclear-weapons sites act as a record of our collective fasci–nation and horror at the technological and societal results of the Cold War. " 'The horror of that moment,' the King went on, 'I shall never, never forget!" You will, though,' the Queen said, 'if you don't make a memorandum of it.' " Paul Shambroom's nuclear photographs are just such memoranda.

 

DOUGLAS FOGLE EXHIBITION CO-CURATOR