Minneapolis photographer Paul Shambroom doesn't take no for an answer. When his requests are ignored or denied, he just takes another tack until eventually he finds the chink that gives him access. So it was with the United States' nuclear arsenal, which Shambroom wanted to photograph.
Why not? We, the people, own and deploy thousands of Minutemen, Peacekeepers, and other nuclear missiles. Fenced missile silos pock the plains of North Dakota, and rows of sleek, white, one-megaton nuclear gravity bombs slumber in an Air Force storage base in Louisiana. Curious about what the weapons, planes and warheads look like, how they are housed, and who is watching over them, Shambroom began writing in 1990 to the Pentagon, the Air Force, the Navy, asking permission for his project.
The authorities were not amused. Although he donned a mask of cool neutrality, writing that he planned "neither to criticize nor glorify nuclear weapons," he was repeatedly blown off. Then in September 1991, the Navy bit, granting permission to photograph its submarines. That was the chink he needed. Over the next decade he got permission to photograph at 35 military bases in 20 states, places that no unauthorized citizen has penetrated and few have reported on.
The resulting images became the core of a book and several exhibitions, including "Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power," opening Saturday at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. It runs through April 20 before traveling to Columbus, Ohio, Atlanta and Long Beach, Calif.
Organized by Weisman curator Diane Mullin with colleagues in Long Beach and Toronto, the show is a midcareer retrospective that includes selections from five photo series spanning 20 years. Besides the "Nuclear Weapons" pictures, it includes images of factories, offices and small-town city council meetings, plus portraits of emergency personnel and disaster first-responders.
"My interest throughout my entire career has been the place of the citizen within the state," Shambroom said in a recent interview. He uses a camera to "examine the external power structures of business, government and how an individual relates and doesn't, serves or does not serve, participates or doesn't participate.
"I still think of myself as highly patriotic. Being a participant in a democracy means questioning and challenging. I think that's the highest form of patriotism."
Granted access to some of the country's most rarefied precincts -- the Pentagon, the control room of a Trident submarine, a Minuteman launch center -- he maintained a scrupulous neutrality in picturing them. There is no irony, attitude or manipulation in his photos, all of which are large, glossy color images gleaming with the perfect details typical of annual reports and corporate brochures.
In the most banal environment, Shambroom finds a way to accentuate strange beauty. In the Joint Chiefs of Staff Conference Room at the Pentagon, for example, a simple notepad is framed by reflections from fluorescent lights that seem to phosphoresce, hinting at the potentially incendiary messages that might be scribbled on the pads. An exit tunnel from a bomb-crew bunker in South Dakota is suffused with otherworldly radiance, and the crinkled plastic snoods covering warheads in Cheyenne, Wyo., have an eerie resemblance to Ku Klux Klan hoods.
Shambroom, a graduate of Macalester College and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, worked for a time as a commercial photographer, bringing glamour to mundane objects and dignity to stuffy executives. Transferred to his own projects, those skills uncover fascinating qualities in the oddest places.
One of the show's most disconcerting photos is "General Mills, Inc. (#4), Golden Valley, Minnesota," a 1989 image of the landscape beneath a boardroom table. Illuminated by raking light, the brown carpet ripples across the floor like corn stubble in an autumnal field. Through Shambroom's alchemy, the scene looks like a vast, futuristic airport, the table legs towering like incongruous redwoods amid wheeled chair bases glowing like alien spacecraft.
People rarely appear in Shambroom's early work, and when they do, they are often background figures dwarfed by gigantic apparatus. Starting in 1999, however, he began traveling to towns with populations under 2,000, to photograph city council meetings. There he found a mother lode of earnest sincerity, tables full of hardworking Joes and Janes visibly struggling to do the right thing.
Given the long exposure times required to shoot in the available light, the "Meetings" photos ooze frozen perfection, as if the council members were wax mannequins in a small-town Madame Tussauds. Shambroom accentuates the artifice by printing the photos on canvas, varnishing and stretching them like traditional paintings.
In his continuing "Security" series, his portraits of first-responders in masked hazmat suits and camouflage gear deliberately allude to 18th- and 19th-century European portraits in which subjects were posed in idealized landscapes designed to ennoble. There is something both comic and childishly vulnerable about these contemporary action heroes in their bulky suits clutching sci-fi tools. And yet, living as we do in a time of endless anxiety and anonymous threat, the photos bring home uncomfortable realities.
The contrast between the futuristic "Security" personnel and the earnest Middle Americans in their "Meetings" is sharp but illusory. Shambroom's projects make clear that the same Americans occupy all these scenarios: when they're done minding the bombs and cleaning up chemical spills, they trot off to town council meetings and fret about zoning issues. Together Shambroom's projects present a disquieting portrait of the United States as a nation of unimaginable military might controlled -- or not -- by ordinary folks.
"We are all responsible for our government on every level, from putting stop signs on the corner, to the president's actions and nuclear policy," Shambroom said. "Whether you participate or not, you are involved with the government. Even if you take no action, you endorse the policies. I don't know if that message is very obvious when you walk through the show, but I hope that's what people will take away."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431