So, at a time when many are wondering if we need offices, photographer Steven Ahlgren’s stock footage of American workplaces is a reminder of the not-too-distant past.
Shot over 11 years, the footage offers a glimpse into corporate life in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ahlgren used concerts to photograph business networking events to secure invitations to law firms and accountants, government offices and commercial banks.
While there, he captured offices with square computers, fax machines and mazes of cables that testify to the technological changes that have taken place over the past two decades. But the photographer’s images are also curiously intimate, with employees seen looking at papers, talking on desk phones, or attending meetings under fluorescent tubes.
“I would tell them, ‘Just do what you normally do, and I’ll watch and take pictures,'” he said via video call from his home in Media, Pennsylvania, adding, “I was just sitting and just watch.”
This photograph of a man in a commercial bank was “as close to a self-portrait as I’ve ever done,” Ahlgren said. Credit: Steven Ahlgren
Ahlgren could, after all, identify with his subjects: before becoming a professional photographer, he had worked as a banker. In particular, he saw something of himself in the image of a young man standing over a Xerox machine, his hands deep in his pockets, apparently lost in thought.
“It’s as close to a self-portrait as I’ve ever done,” Ahlgren said. “I think I looked exactly like that when I worked at the bank.
“I had some bitterness from the years I spent in banking, and I felt it was a waste of time,” he added. “So when I started (the project), I thought, ‘Here are people wasting their lives, just like me. But then I started to really sympathize with them. They may have loved their work.”
Indeed, seen through today’s lens, the ostensibly drab scenes offer a compelling case for the death of offices as we knew them. Seas of off-white walls and filing cabinets are only rarely interrupted by pops of color, whether it’s playful ties, cubicle decorations, or framed artwork.
But for many people, the images will evoke a sense of nostalgia. Additionally, hidden within the beige are representations of success and fulfillment. Ahlgren offered as an example an image of two stern-faced women sitting beneath nearly a dozen portraits of men in a commercial bank – amid the dated interiors of the conference room is, according to the photographer, a story of women who are successful in what he called the “old boy network” of corporate America.
“That’s all you, the viewer, get out of it,” he said of his series. “Because you bring memories to it that relate to everything you thought about at that particular moment.”
A moment of refreshment in an insurance company. Credit: Steven Ahlgren
Ahlgren’s corporate past was not the only source of inspiration. He was also influenced by the oil painting “Office at Night” by Edward Hopper. Depicting a man in a suit behind his desk and a young woman in a filing cabinet beside him, the 1940 work invites viewers to speculate on the possible relationship between the two.
In the 1980s, Ahlgren – then increasingly bored with his job as a banker in Minneapolis, Minnesota – regularly visited the nearby Walker Art Center, where the painting is usually kept.
“Office at Night” by Edward Hopper exhibited in Paris in 2012. Credit: Francois Mori/AP
“It just kind of scratched my head, and I kept coming back to it,” he said of Hopper’s artwork. “What I took from that was this idea that you could have a very simple, pedestrian day-to-day situation – and it’s hard to think of anything more like that than the average office – and make something out of it. something dramatic. To bridge the narrative tension in a way.”
Ahlgren’s use of Hopper-esque lighting, which highlights solitary subjects and casts evocative geometric shadows, was not entirely intentional: the photographer never brought his own lights, so the lighting clinic was always “everything that was there” in a given office. But the painter’s influence is also evident in the quiet intensity and poetic ambiguity of the shots, with employees often captured alone or interacting with unseen figures and masked faces.
Ahlgren, who intentionally kept himself as low key and “boring” as possible, was occasionally invited to attend meetings. Credit: Steven Ahlgren
Still, Ahlgren has fond memories of his old office in Minneapolis — a “lovely space” populated by paintings acquired by the art-loving director of his former company, he recalled. And while the pandemic presented a perfect time to revisit the series, criticizing the life of the company “was never the intent of the footage.”
Nor is he convinced that the “whole office dilemma” caused by the pandemic spells the end of physical workplaces.
“I know I would find it difficult to work from home,” Ahlgren said. “I watched my daughters, who are in college, and my wife work from home. It would drive me crazy.”