It is curiously appropriate that, at a time when the media has been saturated by the presidential election coverage, Paul Shambroom’s photographs of meetings have been published in this thoughtfully designed book. His pictures of small town committees seem banal at first glance. However, as examples of American governance at its most grassroots level, they have a particular resonance as the world’s most powerful democracy goes to the polls. From 1999 to 2003, Paul Shambroom attended and recorded hundreds of town council meetings across the United States. His pictures are reproduced one per double page spread in this landscape format book. Text is kept to a minimum with factual information on each meeting’s location, the population of the town, committee name, date and names of members opposite each image.
The minutes of each meeting are reproduced in an appendix at the back in small print on an ultra-lightweight stock. In matter-of-fact colour photographs taken at eye level, Shambroom records groups of people behind desks in cluttered offices or seated at “official” furniture in chambers reserved for debate. His compositions are redolent of the Last Supper. Goodness knows how many frames he must have taken to capture just the right mix of sombre expressions, of concentration and thoughtfulness, on the faces of his sitters which suffuse these images with their solemnity.
That Shambroom has been exploring the nature of power and politics in his photography since the early 1980s (his most recent body of work prior to Meetings being a 10-year project documenting America’s nuclear arsenal) serves as a guide to how we should approach these images. As does the book’s introductory text from Democracy in America by the great post-Revolutionary polemicist, Alexis De Tocqueville. Photographed on large format panoramic camera, the subject matter is elevated by its heroic proportions. Shambroom gives it the same scale as the sweeping historical canvases of the masters – the salon paintings of David for example, a contemporary of De Tocqueville, with their classical scenes of noble governance painted to enshrine the ideals of the French republic. The first exhibition outing of Meetings at the Recontres d’Arles this July, made these references more explicit with a softened photographic reproduction combined with textured canvas giving a very painterly effect.
The photographs in Meetings record the mundane reality of small town bureaucracy and yet endow it with greater significance by their clever use of composition and scale. This is a book worth exploring and a timely record of real American democracy in action.