Our relationship with work has changed beyond recognition in the wake of the pandemic. Now acronyms such as WFH are part of our everyday lexicon and business attire is defined by what you can see on a Zoom call (otherwise known as ‘waist-up fashion’), it’s hard to remember a time when we actually went to an office every day.
As many of us question the necessity of working from an office and businesses are forced to adapt to hybrid working, Steven Ahlgren’s new photo book – shot in the days before wifi and Teams meetings – is a timely reminder of how things once were.
The seeds of Ahlgren’s photo series were first planted in the late 80s, when he was working as a banker in Minneapolis. Feeling bored and unfulfilled by his job, he began taking frequent trips to the Walker Art Center, where he was drawn to one particular painting by Edward Hopper, called Office at Night.
“As I gradually became more interested in photography and less interested in banking, I began to notice scenes around me that seemed quietly evocative, and reminded me of Hopper’s paintings,” Ahlgren writes in the book’s opening pages.
“When working late I was fascinated by how the light in some empty offices and corridors appeared almost theatrical. In meetings … I would observe the subtle expressions and gestures of those around me. 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.”
It wasn’t until a few years later, when Ahlgren left banking to go and study photography, that he went back into an office with a camera to try and capture some of his early ideas. Shot between 1990 and 2001, the photographer visited a variety of offices but always took the same approach with the series, with nothing staged and using only the available light.
The images in the series reflect a bygone era of office life, featuring relics such as off-kilter filing cabinets, supersized computer monitors and Xerox machines. What’s more, they capture the curated versions of themselves that people presented as part of the office ritual – from ironed shirts and ties to shoulder pads.
“Our Covid-recalibrated world hushed the hum of office life, turning memories into nostalgia. But Ahlgren’s images, made over a decade ago, stir them from their silence,” journalist Ufrieda Ho writes in the book’s introduction.
“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. 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.”