Long Beach

Paul Shambroom, B83 one-megaton nuclear gravity bombs in Weapons Storage Area, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, 1995, color photograph, 48 x 61". From the series “Nuclear Weapons,” 1992–2001.

Paul Shambroom, B83 one-megaton nuclear gravity bombs in Weapons Storage Area, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, 1995, color photograph, 48 x 61". From the series “Nuclear Weapons,” 1992–2001.

Paul Shambroom

University Art Museum (UAM) at California State University

Paul Shambroom, B83 one-megaton nuclear gravity bombs in Weapons Storage Area, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, 1995, color photograph, 48 x 61". From the series “Nuclear Weapons,” 1992–2001.

I FIRST SAW PHOTOGRAPHS from Paul Shambroom’s “Nuclear Weapons” series, 1992–2001, in 1995, just prior to the passage of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Shambroom’s frank documentary depictions of places glimpsed by most of us only in nightmares—high-security military sites, including missile command centers, Trident submarines, and weapons storage facilities—made for riveting viewing, even as cold-war fears of certain doom seemed to be loosening their grip. Now, in a vastly changed cultural context, the Minneapolis-based artist’s first comprehensive midcareer survey, which originated at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, brings together his nuclear series and four other major bodies of work: “Factories,” 1986–88, “Offices,” 1989–90, “Meetings,” 1999–2003, and “Security,” 2004–2007. As these photographs indicate, Shambroom is drawn to what he calls “spaces of power,” but his definition of power is far from formulaic. Along with the Pentagon, his subjects include such small-fry authorities as rural city councils. He also peers into spaces of the powerless, like middle-management cubicles, those clichéd locations of frustrated ambition.

Trained as a commercial photographer, Shambroom has a nuanced sense of detail and composition. He focuses his lens on overlooked or out-of-the-way interiors, capturing a thicket of chair legs under a meeting table (General Mills, Inc. [#4], Golden Valley, Minnesota, 1989) and the ring of crushed carpet under a potted plant in a corporate hallway (Cray Research, Inc. [#3], Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1989). His office and factory images are similar to the empty boardrooms of photographer Lynne Cohen, but unlike Cohen, Shambroom includes the occasional person—blurred workers at an aerospace factory, a man resting in what looks like a utility closet. With these early works, he is no portraitist; faces are often blocked, and the figures are largely subsumed by bewildering manufacturing machinery (like dizzying coils of cables) or cramped rabbit-warren office architecture. (In the context of the global economic meltdown, his near-empty businesses now read not only as historical but also as eerily prescient harbingers of things to come.) Lest we forget the gender implications of institutional power, a photo taken in the Mentor Corporation’s penile-implant factory showing gloved hands maneuvering a set of phallic steel rods drives the point home.

For the “Meetings” series, the photographer took candid shots of city council members at work in very small towns. These elected officials are often seated friezelike behind long tables and desks, so formal in their workplace demeanor that they resemble the static tableaux of history paintings. This sense of theatricality is heightened by Shambroom’s decision to print the images on canvas rather than paper. Covered with a gloss of varnish, the works erode the line between painting and photograph, as the texture of the canvas intrudes on their surfaces and softens background details. Up close, the images verge on the unreal, looking more like allegorical portraits à la Holbein than verifiable documents, and underscore the strangeness of that seemingly familiar spectacle—local democracy, as practiced in the United States.

Continuing this play between the real and the simulated is Shambroom’s recent “Security” series, which examines the antiterrorism training centers that proliferated during the Bush administration. These images of security drills and radiation checks are for the most part set outside, as men in bombproof suits march under picturesque skies. The shift outdoors, however, lessens the photographs’ impact, as it takes us out of the claustrophobic, rarely seen inner sanctums pictured in Shambroom’s earlier works. Similarly, his suite documenting missile silos in places like Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri, Nine ICBM Silos, 1992–2001, which intentionally draws from the painterly conventions of sublime landscapes (one features a rainbow), is overly reliant on sweeping, monumentalized vistas. Rather than emphasizing how proximate these bombs in our backyards are, such depictions make the sites appear even more remote.

Recent promises to eventually rid the nation of its warehoused weapons have not diminished the potency of Shambroom’s “Nuclear Weapons” works, which remain his most powerful images. Traveling to twenty states, he negotiated astonishing access to the heavily restricted architectures of the US nuclear arsenal. (While this was difficult enough in the 1990s, the impossibility of such a negotiation in the wake of 9/11 brought that series to an end.) The pictures that resulted are neither alarmist nor fetishistic. Instead, he emphasizes the banality of this evil, especially the quotidian maintenance required to keep the weapons ready. In B83 one-megaton nuclear gravity bombs in Weapons Storage Area, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, 1995, a man sweeps the floor with a household broom next to gleaming nose cones: an ordinary chore chillingly transformed in the face of these extraordinarily destructive objects.

Viewed retrospectively, and despite the series’ varying strengths, Shambroom’s work urges us to rethink ever-shifting regimes of power and the ongoing governmental fixation on national security threats. This exhibition also prompts a reconsideration of the function of documentary photography today, given constantly changing conditions of secrecy, access, and transparency. Can carefully staged photographs maintain their relevance amid the increasing flood of information available instantaneously through all media? Most of Shambroom’s images do—perhaps because they insistently present themselves not as information but as rigorous pictures, depictions of specific things at specific moments, all the more resistant to abstraction because of their mundanely convincing particularity. As with his photograph of the unassuming man sweeping the floor in front of one-megaton bombs, Shambroom is at his best when his exposés achieve a level of unexpected intimacy.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is an associate professor of contemporary art history at the University of California, Irvine.