Who would have thought that photos of a bunch of local worthies sitting round a table could be so fascinating? Shambroom's inspired idea was to capture the bottom layer of the democratic process, the one that intimately affects the everyday activities of most of us. The people in these photos control civic work that makes life pleasant for millions of Americans. The beauty of the system is that if your life isn't as pleasant as you think it should be you can say so and put yourself forward to get elected and try things your way.
The forty meetings in the book are a selection of the 150 Shambroom photographed between 1999 and 2003, mostly in small towns with a few from large metro areas. Plate twenty-nine shows the Community Board of Manhattan District 7 (population over 200,000) sitting in an appropriately stately room with large portraits behind them and at the other extreme is plate thirteen showing the five team City Council of Berkley, Iowa (population 24) sitting round a table in the classroom of a local school.
The large format straight on photos capture the moment at these meetings, mostly everyone looks very serious (bored even?) and away from the camera. They are talking amongst themselves or listening to someone speaking away from Shambroom's camera. For such a simple shot there is a huge amount of detail to take in, the people, tables with papers, office furniture, walls with maps, paintings, flags and more. I thought it interesting that in so many of these meetings each person had a nameplate in front of them. Real people doing their civic duty.
There is however another element to this book that I think lifts it way above the usual photographer's monograph. Shambroom had the brilliant idea of including the minutes of the meetings he photographed. They follow on from the plates, printed on very thin paper and you can read what was said by the folks you've just looked at. For example, the minutes (August 1999) for the Board of Selectmen for Woodstock, Maine have Vern (the Town Manager) reporting that Ed Haskell had given a price of $10,500 to install a hot water heating system in the library. It was accepted and the work would begin soon. Turn to plate nineteen and there is Vern Maxfield sitting on the right of the table.
Shambroom, with his photos, has raised the mundane civic meeting to another level and with the addition of the minutes this book becomes alive and captures the very essence of democracy.