Finding an ashtray in an office these days could quite possibly qualify as a miracle. But they are everywhere in “Executive Order”, a book of photographs that Susan Ressler took of American offices in the 1970s. Spherical marble ones sit on a glass coffee table like miniature pieces of conceptual sculpture; three utilitarian black ones lurk in an empty meeting room. One on a paper-strewn desk contains big fat cigars; another sits beside a stylish pair of aviators.
At first the book seems like a nostalgic elegy to days gone by. There are more indoor plants than you’ll find in the average millennial’s flat, some garish printed carpets and a plush white leather chair. On the book’s imitation leather cover an impeccably suited man leans against his desk. With his casual pose and air of insouciance, he could be an ex-colleague of Don Draper or maybe even Gordon Gecko’s first boss. But the motive behind these photographs, many of which were taken for the Los Angeles Documentary Project (1979-1980), a programme sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, was more subversive.
At the beginning of her career, Ressler had been inspired by Dorothea Lange, the pioneering documentary photographer who took portraits of poor farmers during the Great Depression. But in 1973 a three-month stint in Northern Canada photographing Native American families plagued by adversity and addiction left her feeling disillusioned. She was uncomfortable with the imbalance of power that tends to exist between documentary photographer and subject, and decided to take a new approach. Rather than seeking out the powerless, she turned her gaze towards the powerful.
“The artifice of the interior, no matter how tasteful, is ultimately hollow,” said Ressler. The longer you study these photographs, the more you notice the playful rebelliousness. In one, “Countdown”, a row of numbered folders is conspicuously out of order. In another an art-deco-style lamp sits on a glass desk alongside an empty wine glass and paperweight shaped like a giant dollar sign. But on the wall there’s a Basquiat-style painting that reads “Dead” – the title of the photograph. In “Northrop Corporation” a miniature fighter jet is poised on a side-table as if ready to fire at the three globes on the other side of the room.
By the mid 1970s, a new genre of photography had emerged. New Topographers like Joe Deal and Lewis Baltz took technically formal, mostly black-and-white photos of seemingly mundane elements of the urban landscape. Their subjects included roaring highways, empty parking lots and sculptural-looking factories. Together they showed how the landscape was being transformed by capitalism.
Ressler took this measured and methodical aesthetic and applied it to interiors. In “Cloud Break” we see three armless fibreglass chairs, like moulds on a halted conveyor belt. Above them, painted on the wall, is a single, lonely cloud. The overall effect is bleak and uncomfortable, but comfort costs money and you don’t want to encourage workers to spend too much time away from their desks.
Ressler’s photographs were carefully staged. She told subjects where to stand, how to pose and where to look. Surfaces were cleared, objects were moved. She saw these offices as microcosms of society, complete with tensions around race, gender and class. In this picture, a white male executive leans cockily against the curved wooden cubicle in which an African-American female receptionist sits, resting her chin on her hands. She is boxed in, he is free. He looks out to the world, she looks at him. But what he can’t see is her expression. Is it quiet determination? Is it indifference? Is it disdain? It’s up to the viewer to make up their mind.
“Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO)”
Most of Ressler’s compositions are geometrically complicated. Here, a multitude of different shapes and angles compete for your attention. Your eye moves from the pyramid on the glass coffee table, to the art on the wall that looks like a pie with a missing slice, to the cloud-like shadows in the corridor, to the zig-zag screen, up to what might just be a Alexander Calder mobile (or at least a very good knock-off).
You can’t imagine people feeling at ease in a room like this. Ressler says she used formal geometery “to construct arenas of financial power as sterile, isolating spaces.” Humans, with all their unruliness, are often conspicuous by their absence.
For Ressler there are striking parallels to be drawn between the 1970s and today. “Now, in the era of Trump, we face the same dangers that ensue when corporations are deregulated and when profits ‘trump’ people,” she writes. In this photograph, a female worker sits, apparently serenely, at her desk. But there’s an uncanny look in her eyes. When you notice the envelope opener she wields like a dagger and the gigantic artwork depicting a “X” on the wall, you wonder if she’s plotting some kind of sabotage, and whether similar quiet rebellions are happening now in offices around the world.
Executive Order by Susan Ressler is published by Daylight Books