So, at a time when many are wondering if we need offices at all, archival photographs of American workplaces taken by photographer Steven Algren are a reminder of the not-too-distant past.
The images, taken over 11 years, provide a glimpse of corporate life in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ahlgren used event photography for business networks to get invitations to law and accounting firms, government agencies, and commercial banks.
While there, he took over offices filled with square computers, fax machines, and mazes of cables that speak of the technological shifts that have taken place over the past two decades. But the photographer’s images are also surprisingly intimate: employees looking at documents, talking on desk phones, or attending meetings under fluorescent lights.
“I’d tell them, ‘Just do what you normally do, and I’m going to look and take some pictures,'” he said via video link from his home in Media, Pennsylvania, adding, “I’d just sit and just watch. .”
This photo of a man in a commercial bank was “the closest thing I’ve ever taken to a self-portrait,” Ahlgren said. Credit: Stephen Algren
After all, Ahlgren could relate to his subjects: before becoming a professional photographer, he worked as a banker. In particular, he saw something of himself in the image of a young man standing over a photocopier, his hands thrust deep into his pockets and as if immersed in his own thoughts.
“This is as close to a self-portrait as I have ever taken,” Ahlgren said. “I think that’s what I looked like when I worked at the bank.
“I had some bitterness from those years that I spent in the banking industry, and I felt that the time was wasted,” he added. “So when I started (the project), I thought, ‘Here are people wasting their lives, just like me.’ But then I started to really empathize with them. Perhaps they enjoyed their work.”
Indeed, seen through the lens of today, the supposedly bleak scenes offer a compelling case for the death of offices as we knew them. A sea of off-white walls and filing cabinets are only occasionally interrupted by flashes of color, whether it’s playful ties, office decorations, or framed artwork.
But for many people, the images will evoke a sense of nostalgia. Moreover, images of success and self-realization are hidden in beige. Algren cited as an example an image of two hard-faced women sitting under nearly a dozen portraits of men in a commercial bank — among the outdated conference room interiors, according to the photographer, there is a history of women who have succeeded in what he called the “old boys network” of corporate America.
“That’s what you, the viewer, take from it,” he said of his series. “Because you bring back memories of how you thought about that particular time.”
A water cooler moment at an insurance company. Credit: Stephen Algren
Ahlgren’s corporate background was not the only source of inspiration. He was also influenced by Edward Hopper’s oil painting The Office at Night. The 1940 work, which depicts a man in a suit at a table and a young woman at a filing cabinet next to him, invites viewers to speculate about a possible relationship between the two.
In the 1980s, Ahlgren, increasingly bored with his job as a banker in Minneapolis, Minnesota, made regular trips to the nearby Walker Art Center, where the painting is usually kept.
“Night Office” by Edward Hopper at an exhibition in Paris in 2012. Credit: François Maury/AP
“It just scratched me and I kept coming back to it,” he said of Hopper’s work. “I got the idea out of that that you can have a very simple, mundane, everyday situation – and it’s hard to come up with something more like a normal office – and make it something dramatic. To fill the tension of the narrative in some way.”
Algren’s use of Hopper-style lighting, which illuminates individual objects and casts evocative geometric shadows, was not entirely intentional: the photographer never brought his own lighting with him, so clinical lighting was always “all there was” in any office. But the artist’s influence is also evident in the calm intensity and poetic ambiguity of the shots, with employees often captured alone or interacting with unseen figures and hidden faces.
Algren, who deliberately acted as inconspicuous and “boring” as possible, was sometimes invited to meetings. Credit: Stephen Algren
Still, Ahlgren has fond memories of his old Minneapolis office, a “pretty space” filled with paintings acquired by his art-loving former CEO, he recalls. And while the pandemic was the perfect time to revisit the series, critiques of corporate life have “never been the focus of the films.”
Nor is he convinced that the pandemic’s “whole office dilemma” means the end of physical jobs.
“I know it would be hard for me to work from home,” Ahlgren said. “I watched my daughters who are in college and my wife work from home. It would drive me crazy.”