Published: September 15, 2006
Landscape of terror
By Mary Abbe
Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Fear washed over the American landscape in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy five years ago, the anxiety heightened by shadowy foreign threats, national security alerts, political posturing and the intractable war on terror.
In response to the heightened fears, the newly created Department of Homeland Security set out to train police, firefighters, SWAT teams and other first responders to handle disasters ranging from hostage standoffs to train wrecks, car bombings and chemical explosions. At special sites nicknamed, among other things, Terror Town and Disaster City, the responders donned flak jackets or hazmat (hazardous materials) suits and ran cleanup and rescue missions under the watchful eyes of training evaluators.
For the past two years Minneapolis photographer Paul Shambroom has photographed this domestic landscape of terror and the bizarrely clad denizens who inhabit it. A selection of his photos was shown at a New York gallery this past spring, and 10 were published this month in a special "Nuclear 9/11" issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a scholarly journal. A sample of Shambroom's "Security" photos opened today at Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis.
Long fascinated by power in its various guises, Shambroom is the photographer/author of two previous books and exhibitions on loosely related topics. The first, "Face to Face With the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, out of print), featured his images of nuclear weapons, their storage sites and guardians. The second, "Meetings" (Chris Boot Publishing, 2004), showed grass-roots democracy-in-action via images of small-town council meetings around the country. He expects that his "Security" project will also result in a book when it is finished next year.
Fear as subject matter
"It took me three years after 9/11 to figure out how to approach this," Shambroom said. "I knew immediately on 9/11 that it would be something I'd be dealing with as an artist, but I had to figure out my visual strategy. I didn't want to photograph the American response abroad because there are so many people doing that. I realized that fear was the subject matter, but how do you visualize fear? I always like visuals to which the response is ambivalent, and this fits the bill really well."
While Shambroom's topics are politically potent, his deliberately deadpan images often appear surprisingly neutral, as if the banality of daily life had overwhelmed the danger latent in a missile silo or a chemical spill. In his "Security" series photo "Decontamination Foam Test" taken at Disaster City, a training center near College Station, Texas, two men in bright orange outfits are spraying white foam over a white sedan with a flat tire. As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists observed, the setting "could be mistaken for a car wash, if it weren't for the hazmat suits."
Likewise, a scene in which six black-clad SWAT team members charge toward a bland beige house in Terror Town could be a still photo from a generic law-enforcement training film. The setting, however, is a peculiar post-9/11 artifact. Playas, N.M., is a former mining-company town about 30 miles from the Mexican border that was largely abandoned in the late 1990s when a nearby copper smelter closed. The Homeland department bought the whole town and uses it as a training site. Many of the town's 50-some remaining residents do role-playing work as hostages or terrorists.
"What you don't see is the trainers standing around with clipboards and the bleachers behind with students watching the action unfold," Shambroom said in a recent interview. He avoided photographing such details to maintain a documentary illusion and because he "didn't want to make it an ironic critique." Some images dramatically illustrate staged horrors that, fortunately, are not part of the American landscape: the grubby remains of a 1987 Honda Civic vaporized by 300 pounds of ANFO explosive (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil - the stuff used in the Oklahoma City bombing), or a shattered plywood cutout simulating a man killed by a pipe bomb.
He also did quasiformal portraits of several first responders suited up with gas masks, helmets and high-tech chemical and nuclear sensors. One green-clad enlisted man from the 148th Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit of the Minnesota Air National Guard stands in a birch forest accompanied by a large, silvery robot that somehow suggests a high-tech dog. Playing off 18th-century portrait traditions, Shambroom computer-enhanced the background lighting to ennoble the men, transforming them into real-life action figures.
The presence of audiences at disaster-training sessions did seem to blur the relationship between reality and fantasy, and sometimes they took on a theme-park aura, Shambroom said. "They became sort of entertainment and education at the same time."Mary Abbe - 612-673-4431 PAUL SHAMBROOM: SECURITY
What: Recent photos by Minneapolis-based Shambroom of firemen, SWAT teams and other first responders preparing for disasters at Department of Homeland Security training sites.
When: Through Oct. 28.
Where: Weinstein Gallery,
908 W. 46th St., Mpls.
Tickets: Free. 612-822-1722 or www.weinstein-gallery.com.
Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.