New York

Paul Shambroom

Where was Paul Shambroom when the arms race ended? His photos of nuclear weapons and the places they are stored and deployed enter a decidedly complex discourse about the legacy of cold-war military buildup. From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to The Hunt for Red October to recent terrorists-steal-bomb potboilers like Broken Arrow, public understanding of nuclear arms has always been contingent on a mixture of reality- and fantasy-based sources, among them the Pentagon, the news media, and the entertainment industry. We are still reminded regularly that the threat of nuclear conflict is greater now than ever before in the new geopolitical theater. Of course, the “truth” (and consequences) of such arguments is up for grabs.

Shambroom, though, seems to believe that he can offer one particular kind of truth on the issue: photographic evidence. In this, the artist’s first solo show in New York, he offered us starkly factual images of the inner sanctums of mass destruction—the control room of a Trident submarine, the Joint Chiefs of Staff conference room, the underside of a Minuteman II missile, the interior of a Combat Alert Facility. His pictures accompanied a March New York Times Magazine cover story (warning that the United States and Russia were still engaged in a cat-and-mouse game over nuclear weapons) and were also included in the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Whether one sees it as primarily journalistic, as partaking of a straight photography aesthetic, or as a conceptual project, Shambroom’s work is undeniably competent, effectively amplifying the character and formal details of his subjects into grand tableaux. The ambiguity in how to read these images is indeed their most interesting and yet disappointing aspect. Though they resist easy classification, the pictures do not seem to involve critical reflection on genre itself, or on the aesthetic and ideological effects of the medium.

It has been noted that Shambroom is preoccupied with the delicate and frustrating bureaucratic process of gaining access to sensitive sites. The pictures he takes, however, fail to document this crucial aspect of their creation. Such information might have told us more about military power today than his vivid portraits of its nesting sites. But the locations he photographs no longer hold the intense fascination (or terror) for viewers they once would have; nuclear iconography long ago became familiar to the point of vernacular. Ultimately, there is something almost nostalgic about Shambroom’s project. The photographer has been credited by some as having demystified the military’s symbolic power through documentation, but such claims seem rather farfetched and maybe disingenuous. The places and objects he has captured have already been declassified, due in part to the evolution of technology. Last summer, at an air show in Los Angeles, I stood fifty feet from a Stealth plane, so Shambroom’s 1993 photograph of a B-2 Stealth long-range bomber didn’t strike me as any kind of revelation. If we disregard their political significance, it seems these penetrations of reality may have less to do with geopolitics than fetishization.

Joshua Decter