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Revealing the banality of worldwide domination

Paul Shambroom's photographs of industry, commerce and weaponry speak

March 06, 2009|Sharon Mizota

There's something unexpectedly poignant about Paul Shambroom's color photographs of factories, offices and nuclear weapons. Seen through the lens of economic free fall and the constant, ill-defined threat of terrorism, his meticulously composed images of production floors, cubicles and missile silos -- dating from the mid-1980s through the 1990s -- seem like documents of a bygone world, one that was industrious (if bland) and globally dominant (if plodding).

It certainly wasn't the good old days, and Shambroom's project has never been nostalgic. But his body of work, which in recent years has expanded to include city council meetings and post-9/11 security training camps, forms a kind of material history of American economic, military and political might. It also reveals a surprising vulnerability.

Perhaps one of the most affecting images in the exhibition now at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum is "North Star Steel Company, St. Paul, Minnesota" from 1988. A large X-shaped metal truss dominates the foreground, behind which we glimpse the reddish glow of an active furnace. Nearby, an exhausted man reclines in a dirty gray uniform, hands folded across his exceedingly lumpy girth. Although the dismal fate of the U.S. steel industry was already sealed by the late '80s, this worker's grimy leisure seems like a luxury from our present, downwardly spiraling perspective.

Still, it's clear that Shambroom was more interested in documenting a world overtaken by things, in which people are marginal at best. In some respects, this focus reflects the Modernist penchant for aestheticizing the trappings of industry, but it also suggests the transformation of an American documentary tradition, established by the likes of Lewis Hine and Walker Evans, that focused on the human figure as a vehicle for social critique. For Shambroom, it is the absence of the figure -- a desolate stasis -- that cuts to the barren quick of American life.

In the "Offices" series, a lonely Mylar balloon, cheerfully emblazoned with the number 30, floats forlornly over a warren of beige cubicles. A close-up of a circular imprint left on the carpet by an indoor planter is a strikingly eloquent portrait of stagnation. And a mouse's-eye view of the legs and underside of a conference table resembles nothing so much as a grand but empty warehouse.

Shambroom's exquisite eye for composition is also evident in his images of nuclear sites. The layout of a 1992 photo, "Minuteman II Missile in Transporter Erector Vehicle, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota," is as systematic as a Sol LeWitt drawing: A large circle (presumably the base of the missile) contains four smaller circles evenly spaced around a red square. It would be a perfect abstract composition save for the pair of camouflage-clad legs that snake disturbingly out from the circle's lower edge.

Evil, of course, is banal, and so, as it turns out, is weapon storage. In "B83 One-Megaton Nuclear Gravity Bombs in Weapons Storage Area, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana," a soldier in a T-shirt sweeps beside a row of shiny white missiles with the nonchalance of a homemaker cleaning the kitchen floor.

Shambroom was able to capture such scenes as the result of a two-year letter-writing campaign petitioning military agencies to grant him access to these highly restricted sites. Once approved, his visits were rigidly scheduled and controlled. Often he was prohibited from using his own camera, and his film had to be developed on-site. In some cases, he was allowed only to compose the shot; an official was required to snap the shutter.

Under such circumstances, one wonders how revealing the photographs actually are. They depict rarely seen subjects, but what potentially controversial information is not shown? It's instructive to compare Shambroom's images with those of a younger artist, Trevor Paglen (Paglen is in his early 30s; Shambroom is 52). Paglen's blurry, long-range photos of secret U.S. military installations rely not on access but on telephoto lenses and Google Earth. Whereas Shambroom's efforts to unmask the armatures of power assume that, to an extent, the machinations can be perceived and recorded, Paglen's works are testaments to governmental opacity.

In recent works, Shambroom has addressed this obfuscation by turning away from the stark clarity of Modernist aesthetics in favor of a more pictorial, almost mythic 19th century-style portraiture. Although this approach evokes painting's older, heroic functions -- Shambroom studied examples in the National Portrait Gallery -- it is still marked by a deathly stillness.

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