The office has long been the subject of fond ridicule, from Mike Judge's satirical black comedy-drama about weary office workers in the 1990s to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's classic mockumentary. Now a new book by photographer Steven Ahlgren shows us what office life was like in the late 1990s and early 2000s, revealing how little has changed in two decades.
Sure, the technology might be different. We no longer need to stand and wait for the office printer to fire out copies of the next meeting's agenda. Nor do we have big glowing monitors blinking under the dismal fluorescent strip lights, taking up most of our desks. But there are similarities, certainly. The wonky desk chairs, often grey walls and dreary predictability of everyday work life – yet, being back in the office brings a strange comfort of routine and familiarity. It's how it feels to look through Steven Ahlgren's photographic series, brought together for a new book published by Hoxton Mini Press.
The images in The Office evoke unexpected feelings of nostalgia and warmth, perhaps a longing for simpler times before the days of Wi-Fi, smartphones and a global pandemic that sent many of us home for two years. Ahlgren's series reminds us of how things once were. When suits were the approved attire, Xerox machines and off-kilter filing cabinets were essential features in offices worldwide. For any of us old enough to remember, the office holds bittersweet memories of kitchen small talk, cheap and nasty coffee, awkward Christmas parties and promotions.
It was Edward Hopper's evocative yet ambiguous painting Office at Night in the late '80s that propelled Steven Ahlgren to leave his life as a banker and embark on this series, among other photographic projects in the late 1990s early 2000s.
"What probably first drew me to the picture was its setting, which I related to each and every workday at the bank," Ahlgren explains. "But what kept pulling me back over time was its ambiguous narrative – who were these two individuals, what was their relationship, and why was the woman looking at that piece of paper on the floor? I was far more excited thinking about Hopper's picture of this office than about any work I had to attend to on my own."
"As I gradually became more interested in photography and less interested in banking," he continues, "I began to notice scenes around me that seemed quietly evocative and reminded me of Hopper's paintings. 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. Sometimes 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."
Interestingly, nothing was staged, and Ahlgren used whatever light was available. "Even though I am no longer working on this project, I am reminded of it every time I enter an office building or overhear a fragment of conversation about office life," he adds, "a promotion won or lost, the challenges of beginning at a new firm, a difficult relationship with a superior or subordinate. Sometimes, afterwards, I remember these conversations and try to imagine how the moment described would have looked like a picture."
With a tender yet satirical eye, the American photographer's nostalgic images will resonate with anyone who has ever loved, hated or simply endured office life. "Our Covid-recalibrated world hushed the hum of office life, turning memories into nostalgia," writes Ufrieda Ho in the book's introduction. "But Ahlgren's images, made over a decade ago, stir them from their silence. Some things will not have survived in the offices we return to – briefcases, shoulder pads, that neglected plant."
"But other things will be exactly as they've always been," Ufrieda Ho continues. "Mismatched office chairs with wonky casters will still roll around boardrooms. Colleagues will still leave uneaten apples to oxidise behind computer monitors. And the pieces of tinsel from five Christmases ago will still be flapping from the air vent – it will feel like we never left at all."
The Office by Steven Ahlgren is published by Hoxton Mini Press.