Radiation check (National Center for Combating Terrorism, Nevada Test Site), 2005, printed 2007,
Paul Shambroom, Collection of the Weisman Art Museum, Gift of the Artist
In the midst of the late July downpour last week I made my way over to the University of Minnesota faculty artist studios to visit Paul Shambroom’s and ask him some questions about his work in Silence and Echoes the Weisman’s summer feature show. Shambroom has two photographs in the show, though his work has changed significantly since the days when he snapped them.
The gloomy view out of Paul’s studio window.
(EA) Give me a short synopsis of your personal history as a photographer.
(PS) I’ve been taking pictures pretty much all my life. Even as a kid I remember being very interested in photography. And I’ve done a lot of different things, I worked as a commercial photographer for many years, as a photojournalist, and over about the last twenty years I’ve transitioned into work in the fine art realm. And then there is teaching. I was adjunct teaching for a while, and now I’m starting my sixth year as a full time photography teacher at the University of Minnesota.
(EA) Do you feel that teaching photography has influenced your own body of work?
(PS) Oh of course. Yeah you know it’s a common cliche that we learn more from our students than they learn from us, but it is true. I learn a lot from my students and from teaching. I think it leads to a certain clarity about your own practice when you speak with students and advise them and recognize that you’re a role model of sorts. It’s like applying for grants, when you write an artist statement, even without any particular goal in mind, it’s very helpful.
(EA) Digital or film photography?
(PS) I’m actually not making my own original photographs for the last few years. I’m working with found images and I love instagram, so my phone is my main camera right now. But I’m pretty firmly rooted in analog tradition, for a long time I’ve been doing kind of a hybrid. What I was doing, more in a documentary based project was I was shooting color film, but then scanning and doing digital prints, going back to 1999..
(EA) But recently you’ve been using found imagery and repurposing it for your work. So following in the tradition of Richard Prince?
(PS) No no no no.. *Shambroom looks back to his “Richard Prince Suicide Girls Print” by the Suicide Girls hanging in his studio..* I don’t know if you noticed but.. Yeah. I’m not a big fan of Richard Prince. I love what the Suicide Girls did, so I have one of their 90 dollar prints as opposed to the uh 90 thousand dollar version. But I’m very interested in issues of appropriation and authorship and it’s kind of hard not to be interested in those things. Especially if you are working with found images, or I guess, sourced images, which is sort of the preferred term of art these days.
Paul’s Suicide Girls print that hangs over his studio.
(EA) So would you say that your transition into using sourced images coincided with the rise of social and influx of sharing digital images?
(PS) No I don’t think so. I’ve just always been a collector. I think collecting is sort of inherent to the photographic impulse in some ways. And I’m just more excited by what I’m finding, whether it’s online or in real life.
(EA) Can you tell me a little bit about your two works that are in Silence and Echoes?
(PS) In regards to: Untitled (Peacekeeper missile W87/Mk-21 Reentry Vehicles (warheads) in storage, F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Cheyenne Wyoming)
I worked on a documentary project on nuclear weapons from 1991 to 2001. I photographed all over the United States, working with the cooperation of the U.S. military, the air force and the navy primarily, so access was a big part of that project. It was sort of inspired by Christo and Jean Claude in some ways. They were straight photographs, you know un-manipulated, documentary style photographs. It was a long time ago. And that was the first body of work I did that started being collected by museums and got some attention.
(PS) In regards to: 1987 Honda Civic, 300 lbs. ANFO explosive.
The second image was part of a follow up project. The overall project was called “Security” and was in response to the attacks of 9/11. I spent several years sort of thinking about it and thinking about what I was going to do as a photographer and an artist to respond to 9/11. I came to the idea of photographing training sites so, in those 4-5 year I traveled to training sites for those first responders all over the country that were being run by the department of homeland security. There was some similarity with the access process of dealing with this difficult governmental agency and somehow convincing them that it was in there interest to let me come and photograph, but it was a lot different. Actually the military was a lot easier to deal with because the Department of Homeland Security was created in response to 9/11 and it’s a very politicized agency, whereas the military has an independence from the executive branch.
(EA) Do you think if you were to do the military project now that you would have the same success gaining access?
(PS) The nuclear weapons project? No, no in fact I just got an email from a guy who was asking for advice on access and well I don’t know, but I finished that project right after 9/11 and everything pretty much got shut down after that. I don’t know about forever. There’s a benefit to the military in showing what they do. I just assume, and I think that most people assume, that that stuff is top secret and no one can ever see it. But that’s not actually true and you know part of it is a public relations desire on their part. I didn’t promise them anything, I didn’t say “hey what you do is great and I wanna take pictures of it and show everybody” I just was very neutral in how I described it and also how I made the pictures.
A U.S. Air Force “WARNING” sign hangs on the back of Paul’s studio door, in between a plastic torso and a glass piece sign.
(EA) Yeah that is actually something I am interested in hearing about too. Thinking of this idea of silence and the role it plays in art, it seems like looking at the Security series that you remained relatively silent about your own political view in relation to the photographs, not putting forth any agenda. Was that an intentional decision?
(PS) I was never silent about that when I spoke about it and I even published a book in 2003 with several essays in it, one that I wrote. In it I make no secret of the fact that you know I think nuclear weapons are a terrible folly, but I didn’t want the photographs to push a person to feel one way or another. I think the mere fact of them is horrifying and if I had any political goal it was to take them outside of the realm of abstraction and show them as real things that real people go and work with.
And you know some people in the military.. while I was working on it I showed them some photographs I had already done as part of the access, just to you know say “Hey I’ve been doing this people have let me in before”.. and there’s a certain kind of fetishizing and kind of a weapons porn aspect. You know some of the people in the military respond “Oh I’ve never seen a picture of that warhead in that way”. Online there’s a big community of people that are obsessive about any kind of weapon, well anything really, I mean you can pick anything and there’s a community for it online. But since the book was published and since I finished the project there’s been a big following online. Fetishizing is the best way to put it. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t i don’t have any desire to control how people react to the work once it’s out in the world. It is kind of interesting to me though. And there are people in the peace community too. I got a letter from a nun who was in jail, or maybe it was one of her supporters not her, while I was in the middle of the project or after the book came out. The letter said how much it meant to her, she was one of the people who were jailed for breaking into missile silos and pouring blood on the lids and was serving jail time. She connected to the pictures I was making and wanted me to know. But then there were people who found them really offensive.. But that was a long time ago. And they’re still there. The missiles are still there.
(EA) Have you always created your photographs in series?
(PS) I have more or less. Well except Instagram, although one of the things I love about it is that it’s not a series, although they end up kind of self organizing into series. I don’t know I think it’s just maybe my nature, or the nature of the world, that things fall apart and organize themselves sort of spontaneously.
Images from Paul’s Instagram account @paul_shambroom
(EA) Tell me more about the second photograph in Silence and Echoes, 1987 Honda Civic, 300 lbs. ANFO explosive.
(PS) The second photograph that they have up at the Weisman is a car bomb picture that was made at an explosives training site in New Mexico. I had researched and found training sites for a variety of kind of first responders, some of them were where they trained bomb squads, which is one of the things that they did at this place in New Mexico. Others were for rescue teams, you know urban search and rescue, all kinds of stuff that I guess is good stuff, you know I guess I’m glad we have those people but there’s an element of showmanship too. There’s a term security theater that was coined by a local kind of security wonk, a guy named Bruce Schneier, who’s written several books about it just this notion that “well, we’re doing something” so we feel safer because we are not doing nothing.
1987 Honda Civic, 300 lbs. ANFO explosive., 2005 Paul Shambroom, Collection of the Weisman Art Museum, Gift of Mary and Bob Mersky
(PS Cont.) But at this site in New Mexico one of the things they do is demonstrate car bombs, so they have this big wall that is in the photograph, it’s a big reinforced concrete wall. I think that at the time they were doing three car bombs a week and they had students that were police and fire chiefs and emergency management directors from communities all across the country. They would bring them in and do this as sort of a demonstration. I mean it wasn’t a school where they were training people on forensics, like how to do a forensic investigation on a car bomb, it was more for show I think. But it was a good show, so the students would help assemble the explosives and put them in the back of the trunk of whatever car they were gonna blow up. They were using fertilizer type bombs and so they would load all the stuff in the trunk of the car and then everyone would go on the bus like a quarter of a mile away. They had a bunker, a concrete building with little slits that you could look through, and then they had a countdown. When the thing blows up you can feel it. You can just feel the concussion in your chest, I remember that experience really well, and every time now that I hear about a car bomb it just changes how I think about it. When you are watching it you just can feel the power of it and then you get back on the bus and you drive back up to the site and you see the results of it. That’s when I’d take the photographs, it was just really beautiful and horrifying, that kind of sweet and sour that i’d like.
And the concrete wall is proportioned just like a Jackson Pollock canvas, so there are a lot of references. You know, just art history, action painting, Yves Klein, all these references. It was just really beautiful. So I ended up going back three different times specifically to make a series. I have quite a few of those car bomb pictures.
(EA) What was the reaction of the students and the people who were there to your project?
(PS) Oh they were pretty much oblivious. Well no actually, there was a guy.. There were two people I was working with that were really interested in my approach to doing this. And you know we didn’t really talk politics, best not to, but I think they appreciated the fact that I was sort of recognizing that there was some beauty and weirdness to what they were doing and photographing it in a way that wasn’t just a documentary style.
Prints from Paul’s 2015 show Lost at the Minnesota Museum of American Art hang in his studio over his instruments.
(EA) So do you feel like looking back now on the series that you’ve done throughout your career, that there are connected themes throughout?
(PS) It’s really changed a lot, I mean I can still make up themes, but I’m making it up. You know, you’re Elise and whatever you do with your whole life is going to be connected, because you’re Elise and that’s true for everybody. With my work, prior to starting to work with found images, there was a pretty direct lineage that I could talk about, but I’m not that interested in talking about it anymore. It’s really changed now.
(EA) Has Twin Cities community played a role in the work that you’ve created? Could you be creating this anywhere or is it only happening because you are here?
(PS) The subject matter, as far as subject matter goes, it could be anywhere. And I don’t really think the projects that i’ve done have ever been geographically localized here, but it’s just been a great environment both in terms of the artistic community and financially. I mean the support for artists here.. I was really largely funding the work I was doing with grants for quite a few years, not entirely locally, but you know the Bush Foundation, the Mcknight Foundation..
(EA) Yeah there are a lot of opportunities
(PS) Not as many as there used to be.
(EA) Do you have any particular artists that have inspired the work that you’ve done?
(PS) I mean there are some contemporary artists that I really like and pay attention to. Usually I try to bring them into speak here or at MCAD.. Trevor Paglen and Hasan Elahi, who have both done work probing the security state. I was influenced by photographers who were kind of important as I was being born as an artist I guess. I just finished reading the new Diane Arbus biography, and she was very influential I would say. And you know the art of modernist photographers who are sort of heroes you know I’m imprinted, you know Friedlander..
(EA) Yeah it’s funny how that happens. I like how you can retroactively look at groups of artists work that emerged from different schools or regions at the same time and see the cross references that they probably didn’t realize were occurring..
(PS) Yeah it’s almost as if how the archaeologists, or even beyond archaeology, the earth sciences or any of the natural sciences really can tell “Ok this is when the meteor hit the earth, because there is a layer of dust everywhere and it’s the same kind of dust”. I imagine with the influence of artists it’s similar, you know, there are just certain times where there are certain things in the air that affect everybody and their work.
Silence & Echoes is open at the Weisman Art Museum from Saturday June 18, 2016 to Sunday September 11th. Click here to find more information on the show and related programming. The Weisman Art Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm and Wednesday evenings until 8 pm.