These sleek monuments to capitalism were all about beautiful furniture, winding spiral staircases, big bulky computers, swish office toys and swisher office workers; and it’s a rare treat to see them captured as brilliantly as they are by Susan Ressler.
A new tome published by Daylight Books, Executive Order: Images of 1970s Corporate America, presents her photographs in all their monochrome glory. You can almost smell the polish and the cigarette smoke in her images, offering peeks inside boardrooms, private offices and lobbies; and in doing so, opening doors into the world of the booming businesses of corporate America.
The black and white palette and careful framing of each shot brings a sense of detachment, perhaps a subtle critique of the emergent ruthlessness of the American business landscape. For all the whiffs of megabucks and beautiful chairs, the spaces speak of sterility and isolation. Tellingly, when people are in the shots, they’re mostly alone, and posing as if playing at the roles they’re employed in just for the camera.
Shot throughout the mid to late 1970s in Downtown LA on a 35mm camera, Ressler’s images became part of a 1979-80 National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored survey entitled the Los Angeles Documentary Project, which aimed to document life in the city during its bicentennial. The middle section of the book showcases 12 images from the 15 used in the NEA project.
As Mark Rice points out in the essay for the book, when Ressler’s images were being made in 1979, the American economy was in a “funk” that’s belied in the shiny, no-nonsense glimmer of the interiors she was shooting: that year saw the US face a fuel crisis, 13% inflation, 6% unemployment and the “hangover of Watergate”. The neatness and implied efficiency these corporations offices’ emanate acted as a sharp contrast to the wider issues across America cities of crime, homelessness, addiction and budget deficits.
“In the era of Trump, we face the dangers that ensue when corporations are deregulated and when profits ‘trump’ people,” writes Rice. “Visualised to emphasise cool geometric sterility, these photographs critique the underlying social structures enabling wealth and power. They do so with irony, empathy and insight.
“They show us that although fortunes may rise and fall, the systems of power and privilege are still fixed firmly in place.”
Executive Order: Images of 1970s Corporate America is published by Daylight Books on April 24, 2018