Shambroom's bleak view of U.S.
Alan Gartner, Tribune art critic. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, III.: Nov 6,2003. pg.3
Copyright 2003 by the Chicago Tribune)
Paul Shambroom's color images at the Museum of Contemporary Photography explore uniquely American power structures. One series is devoted to small-town meetings, the other to nuclear weapons -- and it's difficult to tell which is the more deadly.
For almost a decade, Shambroom worked under the strict supervision of military officials shooting command and control centers, missiles, bombers and submarines. This was the period from just after the end of the Cold War through Sept. 11, 2001. It was then assumed that America's nuclear arsenal was being dismantled, but Shambroom's photographs indicate otherwise.
Several of the images are of vast storage spaces with weapons lined up. Others are of close quarters filled with gleaming, incomprehensible machinery. Most of the scenes are unpeopled or have just single figures performing menial tasks.
One of the most arresting pictures is of the Joint Chiefs of Staff conference room, empty except for a pad of paper flanked by pencils and reflections of overhead lights. It might be any luxurious board room after hours. Only when you come across the image of debris lying in the middle of a road like a giant charred skull does the mind snap back to what transpires in the seemingly innocent spaces.
Like the image of a jolly cartoon painting that has the American Eagle pointing a missile at the Soviet star, most of these color coupler photographs sink in slowly, at first attracting, then repelling.
It's the same with Shambroom's varnished inkjet prints of meetings conducted by civic leaders. During the last four years, the photographer documented more than 150 such meetings in 35 states. Surely the pictures represent the best of the American spirit: democracy in action. The camera always is trained frontally on the desk or table at which elected officials sit. We do not see the citizens who have come for discussion. They are implied by how the officials' attention is often focused on something outside the frame.
The images are essentially group portraits that reveal boredom as well as focus. Shambroom's long horizontal format also takes in a good deal of the meeting-house environments. And, almost imperceptibly, the tackiness and yokelish looks begin to add up.
The mostly overfed people in the images meet to hear complaints on such issues as parking-ticket revenue and garbage pickup. These are the issues important to Americans. They come to exercise their political right, and though we can't see them, a lot is reflected in the postures and faces of the officials.
I don't think Shambroom intended it, but the two series, when taken together, present an America that is a wasteland, almost unremittingly bleak. I imagine he wants viewers to think about reordering priorities. The people in his pictures are fiddling while the world is about to burn, so priorities had better be reordered. But is there even a single viewer who believes the cast in this drama will have any luck?
"Paul Shambroom: Evidence of Democracy" will continue at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan Ave., through Dec. 5. 312-663-5554.