Steven Ahlgren’s photos capture the beauty and banality of the office

The photographer talks about his new book, which takes inspiration from Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting Office at night


Now that we are “living with Covid”, politicians and business leaders alike are calling for the rebirth of office life. Convinced that people perform better within a shared space filled with beige walls, industrial carpet and modular furniture, the mainstream media has churned out endless screeds about the benefits of “office culture” on worker productivity, despite evidence to the contrary. .

With the recent publication of The office (Hoxton Mini Press), photographer Steven Ahlgren captures the quiet drama and mundane magic of office life with a distinctive sense of ambiguity. Photographing inside American offices in the 1990s and 2000s, Ahlgren sees beauty in the everyday and everyday moments of life.

Ahlgren began the series as an extension of her own life. While working at a Minneapolis bank in 1987, she began making frequent trips to look at Edward Hooper’s 1940 painting, Office at night at the Walker Art Center. In the scene, a man is seated at his desk reading a document while his secretary stands behind him, apparently filing documents, while he is lost in his own thoughts. Though calm and calm, he persists an air of melancholy. The day is over, but they haven’t left.

“I had been working in an office since 1984 and was getting a little disenchanted,” says Ahlgren. “I was struck by Hopper’s painting – oh my God, look at this. Here is a scene in an office that I find myself in every day that feels so pedestrian. I kept coming back because, like many of his paintings, it allows you to make up your own story. I was trying to figure it out, but I never really worked out in my mind what was going on there. “

At the same time, Ahlgren was becoming more and more involved in photography and eventually left the bank, but the office kept calling him back. The hardest part was getting permission; but once inside, Ahlgren was ready to create his own ambiguous narratives that left room for viewers, just like Hopper did.

“One of the first photos I took in the series was a guy making photocopies,” says Ahlgren. “I was in the coffee room when the guy walked in. He’s been there for a while making copies, and when I saw this scene, it was more like a self portrait I’d ever done because I sure was exactly like that when I was in the bank. , lost in my thoughts and wondering how long was I going to stay there? What was I supposed to do? “

Ahlgren points to another photograph taken in a bank, in which two women are seated in a meeting room surrounded by men: real men at the conference table and men with portraits hanging row after row on the wall are them. For Ahlgren, the photograph is about what the women in her family experience working in male-dominated industries.

“My wife works in a law firm and has to deal with a culture that is very similar to that,” he says. “My eldest daughter is a mechanical engineering student and she is sometimes one of the few women in the room. She resonates with me because I’ve never had that situation of being the only man in the room, except when my daughters were born and I was the stay-at-home parents. I was the only father in the play group. “

Looking at the photograph of the man sitting at his desk, surrounded by “birthday balloons,” Ahlgren notes that while some see the image as tragic and sad, he finds it moving and thoughtful. “They made it happen with the things that were available to celebrate his birthday. It was a heartfelt gesture, “she says.” A lot is what you bring to the photos yourself. “

Steven Ahlgren’s The Office is published by Hoxton Mini Press and is now available.

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