By Joanna Lehan
140 pages/40 color images/$49.95 Chris Boot
You might think the machinations of a small-town council meeting are about as riveting as a quilting bee. What earth-shattering dialogue could be taking place, for instance, in a meeting of the board of trustees of Fairplay, Colorado (population 576)1 In Meetings, a new book by Paul Shambroom, the photographer turns our attention to the gravity of local politics, and reminds us of what they represent: the very cornerstone of democracy.
Between 1999 and 2003, Minneapolis-based Shambroom took a large-format panoramic camera to town meetings in 149 small communities across the U.S. His goal, he says simply, was to "reflect the current practice of local democracy." The book includes 40 of the resulting photographs, all showing a handful of local officials, sometimes as few as three, seated at a table, making decisions. The pictures are static and formal-evoking myriad historical and religious paintings of events from the Last Supper to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Sham broom's deadpan style highlights the theatricality of what are essentia lIy rituals performed in banal settings. Some meetings convene in ad hoc "chambers." In Berkley, Iowa (population 24), the City Council meets in a classroom, with coffee cups, ashtrays and a calculator set on two tables pushed end to end. In some towns, participants sit at a judicial-looking bench behind nameplates bearing their titles. But whatever the setting, these civil servants meet with a purposefulness reflected clearly in their serious (O.K., occasionally bored) faces. Despite the possibilities for humor in such grave portraits made of people who might show up for their official duties in T-shirts and shorts, the images are refreshingly unironic.
Augmenting his tireless documentation, Shambroom included 36 full pages of the transcribed minutes from each of these meetings at the back of the book, on tissue-thin paper. For comic relief in this relentless document, a few entries are not unlike that made in little Berkley, Iowa: "Bob made mention to buy coffee, coffee filters, Styrofoam cups & a case of pop for city hall. Seconded by Janice." More often, though, motions are being carried on topics like landfills, housing, libraries, mosquito spraying and the application of ~ federal grant money. Indeed, these decisions ultimately affect crucial national, even global, issues ~ like the environment, literacy and housing.
Put in the context of Shambroom's work over the last few years, Meetings is even more significant. In his last book, Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) Shambroom attained permission to document America's nuclear weapons arsenal and the day-to-day operations involved in maintaining it. (Selections from this body of work appeared in the 1997 Whitney Biennial.) Shambroom has also documented factories and corporate offices. The monumentality bestowed by Shambroom's formal eye describes and demystifies the power structures of our time: labor and industry, corporations, the military industrial complex, and now democracy itself. You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist working with more timely or consequential subjects.