ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Questions with an Educator: Paul Shambroom

Dixon Illinois, hometown of actor and former US President Ronald Reagan. 2017

This week’s Questions with an Educator features Paul Shambroom.

Paul is a photographer as well as an Associate Professor in Art at the University of Minnesota. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a Creative Capital grantee. In addition to those honors, he has published two monographs and has another, Past Time, to be published this Spring. Here he describes how those monographs came about, how his work came to focus around American power and culture, and the biggest obstacle he has faced in his career.

We asked: How did your work come to focus on American power and culture? What was your initial inspiration?

Paul said: My early projects explored the US nuclear arsenal, small-town council meetings, and post-9/11 homeland security training sites. Even straight documentary work comes from a personal place. I just responded to what I was curious about. And although the phrase “stay in your lane” did not yet exist, I decided to try to pursue unseen places and structures that my inherent privilege – America, white, educated, middle class – might allow me to access.

I’ve come to see this early work as a sort of test of the health of American democracy, as if I were a canary in the coal mine. The traditional approach in documentary and photo-journalism work was (and still is, to a great extent) to go somewhere outside of your own sphere, to capture the other and the exotic (emphasis is intentional, there is a lot of great writing on war and hunting influences in the language and practice of photography). I realized that there is a different sort of exoticness that exists hidden in plain site within our own country and that I had the tools to access these often-restricted areas. Researching and negotiating access became a major part of my practice.

We asked: What is the biggest obstacle you have faced during your career? Do you expect your students to face that same obstacle?

Paul said: The challenges were (and still are) funding, distribution (getting the work seen), and in the early days – balancing a commercial photo career with documentary and fine-art pursuits. Once I had established a successful career as a commercial photographer, it was not easy to make the decision to change gears and commit to pursuing my self-directed projects. It required risk-taking, support from my spouse, and (most importantly) the belief that pursuing this route was important and achievable. I was very fortunate to receive major funding through a Guggenheim Fellowship and other non-profit sources. (*Note to students and all aspiring artists: do your research and apply for everything and anything you are eligible for. It’s part of your job, so take it seriously.)

My students, of course, face the same challenges, though the art and gig economy have changed a great deal. I always try to assure their families (in commencement remarks) that artists are inherently entrepreneurial and are well equipped for lots of roles in challenging economies. They also help us understand and cope with an increasingly difficult world, and maybe even make it a better place.

We asked: How do you balance your own photography for your business with your teaching? Was it difficult to find this balance?

Paul said: I have not done assignment work for many years. I had a successful career as a magazine photographer, then transitioned to corporate and advertising work where I could actually make a decent living. For a while in the late 1990s and 2000s, I was solely focusing on my own projects for books and exhibitions, and doing well with prints sales through galleries in NY and London, as well as grants. In 2008 the financial crisis pretty much wiped out gallery sales for mid-level artists. I was very fortunate to land a tenure-track job (without an MFA, sort of a miracle…) at a major university, where there is a great support for my research (that’s what we call art-making in academia). I enjoy teaching undergrads and working closely with our MFA students. Our grad program at the University of Minnesota includes photography but the media are not segregated, so I have the privilege or working with artists in all fields. I know how lucky I am – my teaching load is relatively light (two undergrad courses each semester vs. up to five for adjuncts and those teaching at community colleges and such), and I have taken advantage of a sabbatical and research grants to complete my current projects and upcoming book.

We asked: Where do you typically find inspiration for your work? Do you find yourself searching for it or does it come naturally?

Paul said: Finding inspiration is never a problem. Whatever I am curious or passionate or disturbed about, whether in my personal realm or the world at large, can be seeds for art and photography. My current project Past Time was inspired by the phrase “Make America Great Again” from the 2016 election and the toxic politicizing of nostalgia. Where did we get these visual notions of American greatness come from, and was America really that great for ALL its citizens? From those questions, I made a list of individuals and locations that were formative in these idealized versions of America (white, prosperous suburban or rural families  two parents with a few happy children), and photographed contemporary life in those places. 

I try to always take a distinct and different approach to each of my projects, rather than repeating myself. The challenge is in finding a path for exploring and learning- what are the questions, what to read, who to talk to, what is the process (tools and materials), how to structure and fund and distribute the work? I am much more interested in asking questions and learning through my projects, not in expressing a pre-determined viewpoint. 

We asked: Tell us about your monographs, Face to Face with the Bomb… and Meetings. How did these monographs come about?

Paul said: As an unknown photographer, it took several years, three different agents (none successful) and countless meetings and inquiries to secure a publisher for my first book Face to Face with the Bomb… on nuclear weapons. It was a university press through an intermediary packager, the peer review and publishing process was long and arduous. My second book Meetings was quite the opposite. I had a track record, and Martin Parr (an influential British photographer) saw the work at my NY gallery’s booth in Paris, asked if I planned a book, and then connected me with a great London-based publisher and designer. I had never met the man before, and he made the whole thing happen simply because he believed in the work and had the connections. In both cases, I had to raise significant funding from foundations in order to keep the price of the books reasonable. This has long been the case for small-run photography books without mass-market appeal, because of the cost of quality printing, paper and binding.

Past Time, my newest book, will be out in the spring from a small American publisher. It is an exploration of notions of the “good old days” through original photographs and sourced images from popular culture. This time, the external funding will be via Kickstarter. (Details will be announced early this year.) I was reluctant to go that route, but the publisher convinced me based on their past success with that platform, and the valuable marketing that is inherent in a Kickstarter campaign. The book will end up in the hands of the supporters, curators and influencers that I want to have it, and they will be helping finance it. Plus, the publisher will do the fulfillment so I won’t have to be running to the post office. A win-win. Stay tuned!

Find more of Paul’s work on his website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with an Educator and Questions with a Pro series.

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