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All the office cinematography I talked about in the previous post on Up in the Air reminded me of some office photographs I saw a while back, a small portfolio of images from the now-defunct DoubleTake Magazine by Steven Ahlgren. Ahlgren’s pictures were not of recession, so it’s not that general theme I want to make the connection with here. Instead, it’s the question of photographing offices, these most mundane and everyday spaces. How do we look anew at the kinds of spaces that some of us spend a lot of time in? As it happened, I found on Amy Stein’s blog her own discovery of Ahlgren’s work, through a recent find of that 1997 DoubleTake issue. She has a good interview with him, and he talks about his process of shooting these spaces with medium format in order to produce pictures that are subdued yet intense: “The quietness of the images seemed more pronounced. The light and color were much more evocatively described.”

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[‘Insurance Company, New York City’, © Steven Ahlgren]

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There is a clarity to the lighting in these rooms. It’s not a garish, hard lighting, but something that’s flat and even, generated probably by similar flourescent panel arrangements. Even in spaces that look as if they could be all part of some vast interconnected web of similar offices, there are subtle differences that mark out their relationship to the world. An insurance office is decorated with a single whiteboard on the wall and much of the floor space is taken up with random boxes that also serve as a place for the man’s coat. Two mismatched chairs face each other, presumably for passing-by co-workers rather than customers.

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[‘Investment Bank, New York City’, © Steven Ahlgren]

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By contrast, an investment bank office has a bonsai by the window, a polished desk with some fine china on it, while an internet magazine worker sits in what looks like a cubicle set up in a corridor to somewhere else, with a kid’s drawing pinned to the wall and couple of framed photos on the computer. The insurance worker and investment banker both have ties on, but the banker seems more affluent, with his swanky office and tidy hair. The internet guy is untucked and sneakered. They’re all working on the computer, but what’s interesting is these subtle differences that Ahlgren’s careful compositions and consistent lighting allow us to see.

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[‘Internet Magazine, New York City’, © Steven Ahlgren]

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There are other kinds on pictures in Ahlgren’s series too: shots inside elevators, co-workers talking, an empty AIDS organisation meeting room with two tissue boxes as the main props. Some of his other work takes the camera outside the office and beyond; it’s worth checking out his website for a closer look.

Amy Stein notes that, aside from the haircuts and computers, the office scenes could have been shot very recently. I wonder about the appearance of my own workspace, un-corporate as it is, with my desk pushed into the corner between the washing and the spare chest-of-drawers. The environment is quite different, but the work looks the same (though I know I’d be completely lost in any of the offices that Ahlgren portrays), with me sitting here tapping away at a keyboard. But I’ve worked in an office too, and that makes me curious about what the people in Ahlgren’s pictures make of their spaces. If the work itself looks the same from the outside, I know of course that it’s vastly different, all this construction of information. That complex and immense alternate reality that lies behind the computer screens (and the lives of the individuals in front of them) is barely hinted at by the mundanity of the cubicles that house them. And that makes me realise my own mundane thing: that I need, now and then, to get up and go outside for a run. But I’ll keep thinking about these images.