Photographer’s new book is nostalgic look back at office life before Covid-19

Photographer Steven Ahlgren’s nostalgic and tenderly satirical photo series ‘The Office’ is an ode to the mundane glory of the office of the Nineties and Noughties

Alex Hickson
Monday 04 April 2022 11:27
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<p>It is clear that while Ahlgren sees the office as a type of theatre he visualises office workers as actors in a grand performance</p>

It is clear that while Ahlgren sees the office as a type of theatre he visualises office workers as actors in a grand performance

Our relationship with the office has changed significantly over the past few years. Steven Ahlgren’s photographs – taken in the days before WFH, Wifi and Zoom – act as a reminder for how offices used to be.

Trailing wires, teetering stacks of paper, gum-white computer monitors and the cold glow of the Xerox machine. These photographs show once essential tools, many of which are now obsolete.

It shows a familiar and yet distinctly alien world where office attire was something you would wear all day, not just what could be seen from the waist-up on a Zoom call.

Ahlgren’s photographs create a snapshot impression of those events which dominated office life: kitchen discussions, cheap coffee dispensers, parties and chats at the water cooler.

The photographer said that he was inspired by the Edward Hopper painting Office at Night while he was bored and unfulfilled in 1987 working as a banker in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

During his frequent work break trips to the Walker Art Centre he found he was more interested in the artistic impression of the office setting rather than actually working in one. Over time, as his interest in banking faded, Ahlgren became entranced by the dramatic nature of working in the office.

He writes: “When working late I was fascinated by how the light in some empty offices and corridors appeared almost theatrical. In meetings, my attention would occasionally drift from the matter at hand, and I would observe the subtle expressions and gestures of those around me.”

After leaving the banking industry Ahlgren attended graduate school for photography and later worked on this project for more than a decade, between 1990 and 2001, in a variety of locations. Nothing in the photographs was staged and only natural light available would be used in his shots.

It is clear that while Ahlgren sees the office as a type of theatre he visualises office workers as actors in a grand performance. Much like being an actor, a good or bad performance can mean a great deal for the office worker’s life.

He writes: “Sometimes I saw that what was being discussed had profound consequences – professional and personal – for others in the room, although their emotions were usually veiled by professional decorum.

“I am reminded of it every time I enter an office building, or overhear a fragment of conversation about office life: a promotion won or lost, the challenges of beginning at a new firm, a difficult relationship with a superior or subordinate.”

Covid recalibrated our outlook on office life, reducing the daily office hum and turning much of our memories of the workplace to nostalgia.

However working from home appears to be a trend which continues to be popular. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that 85 per cent of those working from home wanted to use a hybrid approach of both home and office work in the future.

The ONS also suggest that job adverts including terms related to “homeworking” increased at a faster rate than total adverts, with homeworking adverts in May 2021 three times above their February 2020 average.

But as pandemic restrictions have lifted and many return the office, Ahlgren’s project reminds us that many aspects of office working have been lost and are unlikely to return.

‘The Office’ is available now via Hoxton Mini Press

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