At a time when many are wondering if we even need offices, photographer Steven Ahlgren’s archive images of American workplaces are reminiscent of a not-so-distant past.
The images, captured over 11 years, offer a glimpse of corporate life in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ahlgren used gigs to shoot business networking events to secure invitations to join law and accounting firms, government agencies, and commercial banks.
There he invaded offices outfitted with clunky computers, fax machines, and cable mazes indicative of the technological changes of the past two decades. But the photographer’s images are also oddly intimate, with employees staring at paperwork, talking into desk phones, or attending meetings under fluorescent lights.
“I would tell them, ‘Just do what you normally do and I’ll watch and take some photos,'” he said via video call from his home in Media, Pennsylvania, adding, “I would just sit and just look.”
This photo of a man at a commercial bank was “as close to a self-portrait as I’ve ever taken,” Ahlgren said. Recognition: Steven Ahlgren
Ahlgren was ultimately able to identify with his subjects: before becoming a professional photographer, he 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 buried deep in his pockets, seemingly lost in thought.
“It’s as close to a self-portrait as I’ve ever done,” Ahlgren said. “I think I looked exactly like this when I worked at the bank.
“I was a bit bitter from the years I spent in banking and I felt like it was a waste of time,” he added. “So when I started[the project]I was like, ‘Here people are wasting their lives, just like I was.’ But then I really started to empathize with them. Maybe they loved their work.”
Indeed, from today’s perspective, the seemingly dreary scenes offer a compelling argument for the death of offices as we knew them. Seas of off-white walls and filing cabinets are rarely punctuated by flashes of color, whether it be playful ties, cubicle decorations, or framed artwork.
But for many people, the images evoke a sense of nostalgia. In addition, representations of success and fulfillment are hidden in the beige. Ahlgren cited an image of two women with stern faces as an example, sitting among nearly a dozen portraits of men in a commercial bench — amidst the conference room’s dated interiors, the photographer said, a story of women who were successful at what he the “Old Boys’ Network” of American corporations.
“It’s all you, the viewer, take from it,” he said of his series. “Because you bring back memories related to what you thought about that particular time.”
A water cooler moment at an insurance company. Recognition: Steven Ahlgren
Ahlgren’s corporate history wasn’t the only source of inspiration. He was also influenced by Edward Hopper’s oil painting Office at Night. The 1940 work depicts a man in a suit behind his desk and a young woman at a filing cabinet beside him, inviting the viewer to speculate about the possible relationship between the two.
During the 1980s, Ahlgren—then increasingly bored with his work as a banker in Minneapolis, Minnesota—made regular trips to the nearby Walker Art Center, where the painting is usually housed.
Edward Hopper’s Office at Night was exhibited in Paris in 2012. Recognition: Francois Mori/AP
“It kind of grabbed me, and I kept coming back to it,” he said of Hopper’s artwork. “What I got from that was this idea that you could take a very simple, everyday situation – and it’s hard to imagine anything more like your average office – and turn it into something dramatic. To somehow fill the narrative tension.”
Ahlgren’s use of Hopper-style lighting, which highlights individual subjects and casts striking geometric shadows, was not entirely intentional: the photographer never brought his own lights, so clinical lighting was always “whatever was there” in any given office. But the painter’s influence is also evident in the quiet intensity and poetic ambiguity of the shots, in which collaborators are often photographed alone or interacting with unseen figures and obscured faces.
Ahlgren, intentionally making himself as low-key and “boring” as possible, was sometimes invited to meetings. Recognition: Steven Ahlgren
Ahlgren, however, retains fond memories of his old Minneapolis office — a “nice room” populated with paintings acquired by the art-loving director of his former company, he recalled. And while the pandemic provided an ideal time to revisit the series, the criticism of corporate life was “never the intent of the pictures.”
Nor is he convinced that the “whole office dilemma” caused by the pandemic means the end of physical workplaces.
“I know I would find it difficult to work from home,” Ahlgren said. “I’ve watched my daughters who are in college and my wife work from home. It drove me crazy.”