Steven Ahlgren’s photos of ’90s offices evoke a bygone era

Steven Ahlgren's photos of '90s offices evoke a bygone era
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Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

The role that offices play in our lives has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among American workers who can work from home, nearly six in 10 now do so most or all of the time, according to a Pew Research Center. poll published in February. Of those, just 42% cite coronavirus as a top reason, with more than three-quarters saying they simply prefer it.

So, at a time when many are wondering if we need offices, photographer Steven Ahlgren’s archival images of American workplaces are a reminder of the not-too-distant past.

Taken over the course of 11 years, the images offer a glimpse of corporate life in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ahlgren used gigs to photograph business networking events to secure invitations to legal and accounting firms, government offices, and commercial banks.

While there, he captured offices outfitted with boxy computers, fax machines, and mazes of wires that speak to the technological changes that have occurred in the last two decades. But the photographer’s images are also curiously intimate, with employees seen looking at paperwork, talking on desk phones or attending meetings under fluorescent lights.

“I’d tell them, ‘Just do what you normally do, and I’m going to watch and take some pictures,'” he said via video call from his home in Media, Pennsylvania, adding, “I’d just sit back and just watch.”

This photograph of a man in a commercial bank was "the closest thing to a self-portrait I've ever done," Ahlgren said.

This photograph of a man in a commercial bank was “the closest thing to a self-portrait I’ve ever done,” Ahlgren said. Credit: steven hahlgren

After all, Ahlgren could relate to 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 in front of a Xerox machine with his hands deep in his pockets, seemingly lost in thought of him.

“It’s the closest thing to a self-portrait I’ve ever done,” Ahlgren said. “I think I looked exactly like this when I worked at the bank.

“I had some bitterness from the years I spent on the bench and felt it was wasted time,” he added. “So when I started (the project) I thought, ‘There are people here who are wasting their lives, just like me.’ But then I started to really empathize with them. They may have loved their work.”

Indeed, viewed through today’s lens, the seemingly drab scenes make a compelling case for the death of offices as we knew them. Seas of off-white walls and file cabinets are rarely interrupted by flashes of color, whether from playful neckties, cubicle decorations, or framed artwork.

But for many people, the images will stir up a sense of nostalgia. Also, hidden within the beige are representations of success and accomplishment. Ahlgren offered as an example an image of two stern-faced women sitting under nearly a dozen portraits of men in a commercial bank; amidst the dated conference room interiors, according to the photographer, is a story of women succeeding in what he called the “network of old friends” of corporate America.

“It’s whatever you, the viewer, take from it,” he said of his series. “Because you’re bringing back memories that relate to what you thought about that particular moment.”

A moment of relaxation in an insurance company.

A moment of relaxation in an insurance company. Credit: steven hahlgren

creating tension

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 next to him, the 1940 play invites viewers to speculate on the possible relationship between the two.

In the 1980s, Ahlgren, increasingly bored with his job as a banker in Minneapolis, Minnesota, made regular trips to the nearby Walker Art Center, where the painting is usually housed.

by Edward Hopper "office at night" on display in Paris in 2012.

Edward Hopper’s “Night Office” on display in Paris in 2012. Credit: Francois Mori / AP

“It just scratched me, and I kept going back to it,” he said of Hopper’s artwork. “What I got was the idea that you could take a very simple, pedestrian, everyday situation, and it’s hard to think of anything more like that than your average office, and turn it into something dramatic. To fill the narrative tension in some way.”

Ahlgren’s use of Hopper-esque lighting, which highlights solitary subjects and casts evocative geometric shadows, was not entirely designed: the photographer never brought his own lights, so clinical lighting was always “the thing to do.” there” in any given office. But the painter’s influence is also clear in the quiet intensity and poetic ambiguity of the shots, with employees often captured alone or interacting with unseen figures and obscured faces.

What’s new from Ahlgren book “The Office,” which brings together more than 60 of the images, even opens with an image of the American painter’s work. “I was much more excited about Hopper’s image of this office than any work I had to do on my own,” he wrote in the accompanying introduction.
Ahlgren, who intentionally made himself so discreet and "bored" possible, he was sometimes invited to attend meetings.

Ahlgren, who intentionally made himself as low-key and “boring” as possible, was sometimes invited to attend meetings. Credit: steven hahlgren

Still, Ahlgren has fond memories of his old office in Minneapolis, a “nice space” populated with paintings acquired by the art-loving director of his former company, he recalled. And while the pandemic presented an ideal time to revisit the series, criticizing corporate life was “never the intention of the images at all.”

He’s also not convinced that the “whole office dilemma” brought on by the pandemic means the end of physical workplaces.

“I know it would be difficult for me to work from home,” Ahlgren said. “I saw my daughters, who are in college, and my wife working from home. It would drive me crazy.”

The office“Published by Hoxton Mini Press, it is available now.

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