“the township, at the center of ordinary relations of life, serves as a field for the desire of public esteem, the want of exciting interest, and the taste for authority and popularity”
– Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
My photographs of government meetings are a continuation of a long-term investigation of power begun in previous series on nuclear weapons, factories, and corporate offices.
A common impulse in these projects is my quest as one individual to understand and illuminate seemingly overwhelming and abstract power systems. Although town council and community meetings are open to the public, the process of governance can still seem somewhat invisible and separate from the lives of ordinary people (as evidenced by the fact that most of the meetings I photograph are sparsely attended.)
These photographs emphasize the theatrical aspects of meetings: There is a “cast”, a “set”, an “audience” (sometimes), and a “program” (the agenda). Seating arrangements, clothing, and body language all provide clues to local cultural traits and political dynamics. The subjects play dual roles as private individuals and (sometimes reluctant) public leaders. Power may be relative, but the mayor of a town of 200 has much in common with the President of the United States. We see ourselves reflected (whether a positive or negative light) in our leaders, exemplifying both the highest ideals and lowest depths of the human spirit. Our reactions to them help define our perceptions of our own place in society, as insiders or outsiders, haves or have-nots
This new work is a departure from earlier work both in presentation and compositional approach. I begin with conventional photographic methods, but then digitally scan and manipulate the images‚ tonality, and sharpness. By utilizing conventions such as eye-level centered compositions, and panoramic formats I place this work squarely in the traditions of historical portrait genres. The large-scale prints on canvas are stretched and varnished to further these references and probe the boundaries between photography and painting.
The photographic road trips I take are inspired by the traditions of Robert Frank and Walker Evans, but the methodology is decidedly twenty-first century. Using a laptop computer, a database of more than 15,000 communities in over thirty states, and mapping software I plan my daily itinerary according to geography, population, and meeting schedules. After driving several hundred back-road miles I pull up to the town meeting hall and there have the privilege of seeing democracy in its purest form as farmers, teachers, and insurance agents conduct the business of their community.
Paul Shambroom lives and works in Minneapolis, MN. He has had solo exhibitions at Julie Saul Gallery, where his work is represented, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His work has been included in group shows and collected by the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Shambroom’s talent has been recognized with numerous fellowships including those from the Guggenheim Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Jerome Foundation. Two monographs of his work have recently been published – Meetings in 2004 and Face to Face with the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War in 2003. Afterimage, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, DoubleTake, Art in America, Art on Paper, ArtForum, and Time Out New York have featured Shambroom’s photographs.