Friday, March 23, 2018

Corporate Office Life in 1970s America


Capturing Photos of Corporate Office Life in 1970s America

A photographer set out to portray the cookie-cutter culture of corporate America's bygone days.
Diver.CreditSusan Ressler
When Susan Ressler returned home from photographing a Native American community in northern Canada, something didn’t sit well. She had been there for three months in 1973 with an anthropologist, following families as they battled alcoholism and poverty. She had dreamed of becoming a documentary photographer like Dorothea Lange, but her time in Canada left her questioning her privileged status as a photographer.
“Here I was photographing these impoverished people and they didn’t have any sense of where I was coming from and what I might do with those photographs, how it might affect them,” she said. “I started thinking about how much documentary photography is from a position of looking down on somebody who has less power.”
So what would happen if she flipped the narrative and photographed scenes apropos of her own upper-middle-class background?
Untitled.CreditSusan Ressler
"Languid Blonde."CreditSusan Ressler
TapesCreditSusan Ressler
While attending graduate school at the University of New Mexico in 1977, Ms. Ressler started going into banks and offices and asking to have a look around. The project led her to Los Angeles, which proved to be the perfect setting to capture corporate America in the cool, cookie-cutter office settings that were prevalent at the time.
“There were these high-rise buildings, which were a little bit atypical of Los Angeles, and I remember being in Century City,” she said. “On a clear day you could see the mountains out of the offices and there was something breathtaking being up there so high in a city that was so spread out.”
She was photographing for the Los Angeles Documentary Project, a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts that had photographers capturing American life. Her work from those years is now in a new book, “Executive Order,” which will be published on April 24 by Daylight.
Ms. Ressler used the same approach in Los Angeles as she had in the southwest: She’d walk into an office building that caught her eye, scan the office listings for businesses and take the elevator up to their floor.
ConsoleCreditSusan Ressler
HoneywellCreditSusan Ressler
CountdownCreditSusan Ressler
“I chose offices to photograph based on how they looked; they had to strike me in a certain way,” Ms. Ressler said. “When I would go into these spaces they were often so chilling and I never felt very comfortable in them.”
But these sleek towers also represented “the rise of the economic order,” Ms. Ressler said, where class, race and gender roles came into play. Los Angeles at the time was the center of the international air, space and tech industries, and Ms. Ressler was drawn to the human activity in these sterile environments.
“I always had a really strong sense that Los Angeles is where you can see the future before it happens,” said Ms. Ressler, who is from Philadelphia. “I always felt that way.”
The 1970s “brought us modern life,” she said, but they also ushered in new photographic activity. “You had the beginnings of looking at photo as an art form,” she said. “There was this whole buzz about photography and the differences between the documentary and the fine art, and how they intersected.”
Much of that comes through in Ms. Ressler’s series. She asked or instructed many of her subjects in the buildings to pose in their offices.
System development corporation.CreditSusan Ressler
The Capital Group.CreditSusan Ressler
"Bowtie."CreditSusan Ressler
“I had a geometric formal eye in the way that I composed things,” she said. “There was this highly modernist aesthetic and in some cases I rearranged things. It’s that construction of the image that communicates the way I see that world in those spaces and what I’m trying to say about them.”
Even years after the project wrapped, she sees even more clearly the social dynamics still at play.
“It’s much more apparent to me now,” Ms. Ressler said. “When I think on it, I never met a single high-level female executive.”
She thinks about how subservient some of the women appear, the “level of resistance that underlies” a few of her subjects, she said. In one image titled “Olympia,” a woman holds a letter opener while sitting at a desk with a large “X” behind her.
“There’s a sense of frustration and resentment underneath the surface,” Ms. Ressler said.
Another shows a black receptionist looking at white executive, who is looking at the camera.
“She’s in that box, and he can’t see the way she’s looking at him,” Ms. Ressler said. “Back then, that’s just the way it was.”
Filmways.CreditSusan Ressler
Atlantic Richfield Company.CreditSusan Ressler
LawyerCreditSusan Ressler
Riding HighCreditSusan Ressler
Cloud BreakCreditSusan Ressler

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