October 31, 2004
ART; The Tableau Inside Your Town Hall
By PHILIP GEFTER
TOWN council meetings are not necessarily the stuff of art, but in the work of the photographer Paul Shambroom, they are certainly the subject of systematic scrutiny. From 1999 to 2003, Mr. Shambroom, who lives in Minneapolis, traveled the country photographing democracy in action on the local level, bringing his 4 x 5 field camera to more than 150 town council meetings in 30 states. Forty of the pictures have just been published in a book, ''Meetings'' (Chris Boot, London), along with notes of the councils' proceedings. A selection of the images is on view at Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan through Dec. 4.
The documentary tradition of photographic cataloging goes back to the beginning of the medium in 1839, when William Henry Fox Talbot made records of leaves, buildings and works of art in Britain to demonstrate the capabilities of his calotype process. Later, in France, Eug ne Ane Atget made a poetic visual record of the architecture and gardens of the ancien régime. In the United States, Eadweard Muybridge used time-lapse photography to capture and chronicle people and animals in motion. In Germany, August Sander photographed individuals as archetypes of German society.
In the last 50 years, photographers have explored this form of artistic inquiry with the rigor and discipline of forensic scientists. The most influential photographers working in this genre are Berndt and Hilla Becher, who catalog water towers and factory buildings, creating a permanent record of industrial age relics before they disappear from the modern landscape. Richard Barnes documents zoological specimens in the storage rooms of natural history museums around the world. Hiroshi Sugimoto photographed darkened movie theater interiors by exposing his film for the duration of the movie being shown.
In each case, the photographer uses a consistent format with exacting fidelity to present the subject (or object) unadorned. But at what point does this documentary form enter the precincts of art?
In Mr. Shambroom's case, the choice of subject matter and the precision with which he renders it suggest a devotion to a larger idea.
''My interest is about power,'' he said in a recent telephone conversation. ''Where it comes from and how it is used. The whole process of decision-making and leadership is what I was exploring here, at the smallest of the small levels.''
His subjects ranged from the town council in Dassel, Minn., with a population of 1,233, to Community Board 7 in Manhattan, representing a population of 207,699. Some meetings were held in city halls, where council members shared a long bench with the mayor, maps of their municipalities on the wall behind them; others were in schoolrooms, at tables with folding chairs. In some photographs, framed paintings of the city fathers hang in the background; in some you see the plywood-paneled walls of a recreational facility.
Tracking down the meetings took some detective work. Mr. Shambroom began by obtaining directories of town councils from state municipal leagues and importing the data into mapping software that gave him geographic clusters of meetings and their schedules. Reactions to his request for permission to photograph the meetings varied; some council members did not understand why he was interested; some required a vote to allow him to proceed; still others were flattered, and welcoming.
Mr. Shambroom chose a panoramic format for the pictures, setting his camera on a tripod at a fixed distance from the council members and photographing the meeting table or podium at an angle parallel to the camera lens. It is the repetition of form that yields the catalog effect.
Adding to the formality is the meeting place's proscenium, whether a dais or a table, and a sense that the proceedings are bound by rules, minutes and the business at hand. We enter the pictures in medias res, yet the stillness of the frozen moments adds another layer of distance, allowing us to observe the council members as if specimens in a uniform social ritual.
Although Mr. Shambroom adheres to a documentary approach, he deviates from its standard conventions by digitally altering his pictures. He plays with the light, creating an evenness that evokes the studied artifice of neo-Classical painting. That, combined with the size of the photographs -- each is 66 inches by 33 inches -- gives the images a diorama-like quality.
In Maurice, La., Mr. Shambroom spent more than an hour making 40 to 50 exposures of the village council, an unusually long time for him. ''I was looking for a peak moment, when there was a stark pause,'' he said. ''At first this was for technical reasons, but then I started to like what I was seeing in the pictures, that hypnotized quality.''
The rapt expressions on the faces in the pictures unite these people. Serious business is taking place, and listening is a sober activity. The ritual of the meeting brings that gravity to the surface: you see it on every face. ''You're inside yourself as a private person,'' Mr. Shambroom said, ''but you're playing a public role.''
Power is not a new subject for Mr. Shambroom. In 1992, he set out to photograph America's nuclear arsenal, and over the next nine years made 35 visits to two dozen weapons and command sites. ''My goal is neither to directly criticize nor glorify,'' he wrote of that project. ''My objective is to reveal the tangible reality of the huge nuclear arsenal, something that exists for most of us as only as a powerful concept in our collective unconscious.'' (A book of those photographs, ''Face to Face With the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War,'' was published last year by Johns Hopkins University Press.)
Mr. Shambroom's approach suggests an anthropologist's method and rigor. He has created a visual catalog of the artifacts of power, but his pictures also function as narrative: part theater, part film still, consistently hyperreal. As for the issues being discussed in each meeting, you are left to fill in the blanks. 'MORE MEETINGS' Julie Saul Gallery 535 West 22nd Street. Through Dec. 4.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company