The Ideology of Defense and Paul Shambroom’s Photographs of the Bomb

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Peacekeeper missile before test launch, California
photograph by Paul Shambroom (reprinted here with permission of the photographer)


Strategic and tactical nuclear weapons technology dominates United States foreign policy. Originally invented to end World War II, expanded to fight a cold war, and further developed after that war for “deterrence,” these weapons’ existence underscores each and every desire of the United States across the globe. With them, the U.S. plays the role of sole superpower, led by a man constantly followed by the “football”—a briefcase literally handcuffed to a presidential aide that holds the keys for destroying the world. The photographs in Paul Shambroom’s book, titled “Face to Face with the Bomb,” present the first independent pictures of these weapons. Yet these are not mere photographs of bombs and other related technologies—they are representations that reveal an ideology: that these weapons have a legitimate place in the world of civilized human beings.

In an increasingly postmodern world, where images dominate the culture and guide our conception, it is perhaps not surprising that most everyone’s experience with nuclear weapons technology is at least one step removed from reality. Shambroom spent years gaining access to these sites, providing the rest of us with the only glimpses we’re likely to get. The images serve to distance us from the weapons’ existence, yet there is something ironic in the fact that one’s sole connection to these weapons is an inherently postmodern representation of something so drastically modernistic in conception and execution. It would seem that Shambroom is aware of this irony, evidenced by his dual-meaning title of “Face to Face with the Bomb.” Certainly he was indeed face to face, but the reason for this action (the capture of photographs), and the result tendered to the viewer (representations of reality), is at least one face removed from the actual.

That images provide more information than a simple picture of the object(s) is a well-discussed aspect of visual culture. Jean Baudrillard offers his notion that our concepts are driven by images, leaving us submerged in a constant stream of simulations that prevent our accurate determination of reality. The power relationship between the viewer and the picture has been explored by Jacques Lacan, whose notion of the gaze explains how images mediate that relationship. And how meaning that is actually constructed is made to appear natural is explored in the mythologies of Roland Barthes.

This essay will primarily concentrate on the ways in which these photographs by Shambroom mythologize a number of historically contingent ideas, how they illustrate notions of patriarchy, and how they combine these functions to present a variety of accepted ideologies that on inspection (and deconstruction) are wholly unsupported. The ideologies will be further explored by considering these images’ relation to the sublime of Immanuel Kant, their place in the “American Technological Sublime” of David Nye, and the ways that these images extend, embody, and potentially destroy our notions of the sublime, concluding with an exploration of how these images and their mythologies relate to current affairs.

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