Often the politics we see on television seem like pure theater: dramatic lighting, carefully phrased soundbites, and well-coiffed and highly made-up politicians standing rigidly at center stage. For many years, photographer Paul Shambroom instead sought out the realities of local government, capturing the discussions that happen at crowded folding tables with weary civil servants in bland conference rooms. He has looked for ways to visualize power systems that impact our lives yet often seem obscured or out of public view.
From 1999 to 2003 Shambroom lugged a big, cumbersome, large-format camera—the kind with a standing tripod that made it impossible for his presence to be overlooked—to over 150 town council meetings across the United States. Printed on canvas at the scale of grand history paintings, the photos in the resulting series, Meetings, capture local politics at work. They have an incredible presence. For the artist, they are their own sort of theater. The theater of the everyday, which powerfully impacts our lives.
As an assistant curator in Getty’s Department of Photographs, I began to look at these photos more carefully while working on an exhibition on American political life that was intended to open at the Getty Museum in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Unfortunately, the museum remains closed during the pandemic, but with Election Day on the horizon, the series has been very much on my mind.
I recently talked to the photographer about a few of the Meetings photographs and what it’s like to be in the rooms where local politics take place.
Mazie Harris: I’m interested in the ways your photos peek into the conversations that pave our streets, that clean our sidewalks, these things we all rely on. Right now, of course, we’re focused on the national election. But local politics are crucially important.
I wonder, in going to all these meetings, were you thinking about the state of American democracy, or were you just so focused on getting access, on getting your large-format camera set up?
Paul Shambroom: Definitely. That was the point of it. On a local level, some people regarded the council members as being very virtuous, but there were other people who thought that those in power are abusing their power and taking advantage of the rest of us. It was probably true to some extent that there were both of those things. And I thought about that a lot, what motivates somebody to do this? Mostly they didn’t get paid or they got paid very little, so there wasn’t necessarily a financial motivation. But the desire for power, even if it’s the power to decide whether or not somebody gets the stop sign on their streets, was important and mattered to them. And I saw the same kinds of characters that I saw in Congress.
MH: Personalities come out really powerfully in the pictures. I thought we should look at a few examples.
PS: This was a community board that represents a population that was probably as large as some of the states that I was working in. So I made the decision to photograph in some very high population, urban areas, but to still try and find the smallest unit of elected government.
MH: The expressions are evocative. How were you able to get people past stiff posing to just ignore your presence?
PS: I didn’t ask them to pose at all. There was always usually a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting where I’d be asked to introduce myself. I did always ask permission, but technically I didn’t need it because, under Sunshine Laws, virtually any government organization of any kind in the United States has obligations to be open and transparent.
MH: The American flag, of course, appears often. But compositionally, this photo, in particular, looks so much like a Last Supper image.
PS: I didn’t realize that until I’d been doing it a little while. And then it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Of course, the Last Supper, where the table on the horizon is maybe at about a third of the way up the composition. There’s a lot of space at the top, which implies a literal gravity to the figures.
I was using a large-format camera with a roll film so I didn’t have to be constantly changing the film holders. But it was still a very large negative that I scanned, a very high-resolution drum scan. I never brought in supplemental light.
MH: You’ve chosen to print them onto canvas and at a large scale. This photo made in Oregon is about 3 feet tall and 5 ½ feet wide.
PS: I was looking at paintings, and at how leadership has been portrayed. I was looking at not just the Last Supper, but other depictions of groups of men—usually they were paintings of men—in positions of power, those sorts of swagger portraits.
PS: [Sedgwick, Arkansas City Council] was a very difficult photograph to make technically. When people are in a line on a table facing the audience, it’s a lot easier to hold focus. Using the view camera involves tilts and swings. I didn’t think I would be able to take photographs here. Clearly, this is not a situation where I can be invisible.
MH: Whereas in that last picture [Sedgwick, Arkansas City Council] obviously, they use the space for other things, here in this image made in Indiana you can tell that this is a space that’s designated for this purpose. The feeling of these places, these cinder-block painted walls, there’s such a specific evocation of civic facilities. Can you talk about the architecture and your choices to show some of that, rather than just taking close-up portraits?
PS: Once I arrived at a working method, I stuck to it. I wanted them all to be the same. One of the hallmarks of the typology process of working is that you let the subject make the picture. I am making multiple examples of the same thing. So the differences in their trappings (I came to think of them as theater sets) become really apparent. There are a lot of elements of theater I started thinking about. There’s an agenda that functions as a program. You’ve got an audience, and you’ve got a cast, and a set. It’s not a big, fancy cathedral to municipal government. But there’s still thought and effort put into it. I love this particular table because they have the mayor’s seat about eight inches higher than the two other council members. And they’ve got the flag and then they’ve got that clock. It has two non-functioning faces with different times.
For technical reasons, I had to shoot with a fairly long shutter speed. Often it was a quarter second or half a second. So I always waited until there were moments with a lack of action. Sports photographers always talk about the moment of peak action. I was looking for the moment of peak inaction. Usually, somebody in the audience is responding or asking a question, so they’re just listening. I ended up liking those moments a lot, but it was not intentional at first. It was just a technical necessity.
MH: There’s an idea that we have of America, a lofty ideal of what democracy is and the way that it works, and then the photos themselves are about the more pragmatic, on-the-ground realities. Your new project, called Past Time, has a similar theme. It pairs illustrations of idealized American life from picture books, the kind of Jack and Jill books that I grew up with, with photos that you’ve taken.
PS: The project was inspired by the 2016 presidential campaign and the notion of the good old days, as if it were something great that we should aspire to and go back to. A lot has been written and discussed about making America great again. But of course, it wasn’t so great for everybody. Clearly not. So I decided to go take a look at some places that might be formative in how we think of the good old days. And of course, it’s going to vary by generation. You probably have a different vision of what the good old days look like than I do.
I made a list of places, primarily hometowns of people who were influential in my notion of the good old days. That included Norman Rockwell, the painter. When I was a kid, every Thursday the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine, would show up at our house, and it had cover paintings by Rockwell. It was Americana. For me they were just magic, they were just beautiful.
MH: In California, you photographed places connected with Thomas Kinkade. “Painter of Light” is his trademark slogan.
PS: His paintings had a very idealized view of America, although they weren’t all necessarily placed in America. In the places where I made my own original photographs, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to look for the historic sites. I was more interested in the contemporary lives in these places. I approached them more or less as a street photographer. I wasn’t trying to get at any essence or pretend that I was embedded or accepted in the town. I was just the stranger walking the streets of the town. It was different from most of my previous work.
MH: I saw in a recent essay that the artist Glenn Ligon quoted George Carlin who said something like, “The reason they call it the American dream is because you have to be asleep to believe in it.” What was your takeaway from the four years you spent working on this as we lead into the next election?
PS: There are a lot of problems in rural America that have some overlap with urban and suburban America. For the most part, people were really nice to me and open to being photographed and talking. I didn’t ask them about their politics, but it made me think a lot about my own privilege of being able to go out and do this work.
Every hour, every day, right now, this week, and this month, I go back and forth between despairing about the future of our country and being optimistic. Check with me tomorrow.