Talking Sense

Minnesota photographer finds more civility than division in ‘Purpletown’ project

Paul Shambroom photographs of Red Gate Alpaca Farm
Paul Shambroom photographs alpacas at Red Gate Alpaca Farm in Dundas on Feb. 15.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Paul Shambroom has been interested in government since he was a kid. But not the usual stuff like candidates kissing babies or heated moments in a political debate.

“I’m just really fascinated with the dynamics of meetings,” he said.

A frequent observer of city council and school boards meetings, Shambroom said these civic rituals reveal a lot about how our communities operate.

“There’s someone who’s sort of the troublemaker, who asks a lot of questions and pushes back. There’s the peacemakers. And there are people who don’t really say much in a meeting. They just kind of sit back and listen,” he said.

Paul Shambroom walks through Dundas
Paul Shambroom walks through Dundas where Republican and Democratic voters were evenly split during the 2020 presidential election.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Which is why Shambroom, who lives in southwest Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota, spent four years photographing local government meetings.

That same anthropological instinct inspired his current project, Purpletown. Since 2021, Shambroom has mapped hundreds of communities that were statistically tied during the last presidential election with votes split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. He’s traveled to 22 states so far and photographed more than 60 so-called “purple” communities.

He likes to be unobtrusive on these trips. His portfolio is full of landscapes, gatherings, and gaming events. 

“It’s almost as if I dropped in from another planet. I’ll wander around and just see what there is to see,” he said.

Paul Shambroom greets a dog
Paul Shambroom greets a dog at the city hall building in Dundas.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

‘Nobody talks politics in the bar’

In mid-February, Shambroom headed to Dundas — a dot of purple in a sea of blue and red communities. Just next door is Northfield, a Democratic-leaning college town. To the south are rural counties that tend to vote Republican.

In 2020, President Joe Biden won Dundas by seven votes. 

Shambroom’s first stop was the L & M Bar, where he chatted with patron Donald Williams.

Williams said he voted for presidential candidate and rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, in 2020, and he plans to vote for Trump this year. He doesn’t love either major political party, but he’s especially turned off by Democrats, who he feels have abandoned labor union workers like himself.  

Paul Shambroom photographs the place
Paul Shambroom photographs the L&M Bar & Grill & Patio in Dundas.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

“It’s either you’re rich or you’re poor. And even the middle class you’re just floating above water,” said Williams.

Sharing his voting record and reasons made Williams a little uncomfortable. He’s seen how politics has strained ties within his own family, so he tends to avoid these discussions. 

And besides “nobody talks politics in the bar,” he told Shambroom. “It’s an unstated rule.”

Observations from a lensman

Shambroom stresses his work isn’t an academic study, and there’s no unifying theme for the project. 

But after all his years photographing towns that are split down the middle politically, he’s noticed that purple towns aren’t as polarized as people might think they are. 

Paul Shambroom photographs Teri and Kraig Quamme
Paul Shambroom photographs Teri and Kraig Quamme, owners of Red Gate Alpaca Farm, and their alpacas in Dundas.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

“I think if people live in a community that is really split down the middle, they’re probably more civil to each other. You know, these people may go to church together, their kids go to school together, they shop in the same stores, and I think they behave differently than people who live in a bubble,” he said.

It’s a theory that bears out during each stop Shambroom makes in Dundas — at city hall, a local brewery and in private homes. His subjects agree that talking about politics is hard and awkward, so why stir things up?

Shambroom’s final stop was the Red Gate Alpaca Farm, where Teri and Kraig Quamme breed award-winning alpacas. 

Paul Shambroom photographs Teri and Kraig Quamme
Teri and Kraig Quamme alpacas pose for a photo in Dundas.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

The couple said they get along well with their neighbors.

“For me anyway, you get a feel on who you can talk to and who you just don’t say anything to,” said Teri.

“So for the most part we don’t talk about anything,” joked Kraig. 

In a small town like Dundas, where everyone knows each other, they said it’s just not worth the risk.