Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Steven Ahlgren

I recently reconnected with my lost friend, colleague and classmate Steve Ahlgren. We talked about house renovations (his), family (both of ours), and of course, photography. It was a great pleasure to catch up and Steve was kind enough to talk about his work and photography.

What is the main focus of your work these days?

STEVE: "In terms of subject matter I don’t really have a particular focus. I have spent a lot of time photographing offices, but I also like to photograph parking lots, highways, pedestrians, trees, shopping malls, plumbing and wiring. I like looking at things that are everywhere around us and making photographs that describe how we live now, and that hopefully allude to what we value. I think this idea runs through all the work."

Three Retail Storefronts (Triptych), 2004-2005, Steven Ahlgren

Was there one photograph or photographer who was instrumental in inciting you to start to make pictures?

STEVE: "In terms of the office photographs not really. I knew a few other photographers - Lee Friedlander, Chauncey Hare, Dan Weiner and Anna Fox - who did something with the subject. One of my most powerful influences was actually a painting - 'Office at Night' by Edward Hopper. I first saw it when I was around ten and for some reason liked it. Later on it used to haunt me when I worked in an office in Minneapolis. I would go on a pilgrimage to see it at the Walker Art Center every other month."

Office at Night, Edward Hopper, 1940

Wall Street, Man Reading, Dan Weiner, c.1949

At Work, Lee Friedlander, Boston Massachusetts, 1985-86

Basingstoke, Anna Fox, 1985-86

"Pretty much every photographer I’ve ever admired, including Walker Evans, the two great Robert’s - Frank and Adams, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Paul Graham, and Michael Schmidt, is somewhere in the series I am working on now, tentatively called 'Autocratic Landscapes'."

Lake Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2000, Steven Ahlgren

Auto Service Center, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 2005, Steven Ahlgren

Could you tell me a little bit about how you started making the office pictures and what the process was? Some pictures are from editorial assignments and some are self assigned? Do you spend hours at the same location, minutes? Can you talk a bit about what the expectations might be of the people you are photographing versus your own expectations and how you navigate this?

STEVE: "I started making photographs in offices in the early 1990’s in graduate school. Prior to that I had spent five years working in a bank and I thought there might be something interesting in these type of places to explore. It took a while to figure out how to physically make the pictures I wanted - changing camera formats and switching from black and white to color - but that soon settled itself and the struggle just became one of finding subjects.

In order to do that I used to photograph social functions for business executives as a way to try to meet people. Once someone agreed to be photographed I showed up at their office with a camera on a tripod and spent 30 minutes to maybe an hour just watching them. Occasionally I was allowed to photograph meetings or wander the hallways. Wherever I was I always asked people to just do whatever they usually do and to try to ignore me. It’s surprising how soon a subject forgets about you when you photograph them. By nature I tend not to talk very much, and also working only in available light also probably helped."

Law Office, Media, Pennsylvania, Steven Ahlgren

Commercial Bank, New Haven, Steven Ahlgren

Law Firm, New York City, Steven Ahlgren

All photographs 1991-2000, from the series "Corporate Documents"

"After working inside for a few years I began to make photographs outside offices, mostly around Wall Street and Midtown Manhattan seeking out pedestrians and office building details. I started this series partly as a way to make photographs whenever I wanted to without having to obtain access, but also because I thought it might fit in with the inside work. For the pedestrians I would find a spot where the light was nice and just watch while people passed, remaining as long as the light was good or until I ran out of film."

Bank Office, New York City, Steven Ahlgren

Pedestrian No. 5, New York City, Steven Ahlgren

Air Intake, Office Building, New York City, Steven Ahlgren

All photographs 1995-2000, from the series "Corporate Documents"

"Since almost all of the office work was self assigned I never had to deal with any expectations other than my own. And when I had the opportunity to do magazine work, I was usually able to photograph as I wanted without much direction - which I am thankful for. Somewhat curiously, none of the people I photographed for my personal work has ever asked to see the images. Maybe they assumed they would look too ordinary since I wasn’t making a big production out of the process and they were just doing what they usually do."

"The only time I had a problem with expectations was when the New York Times Magazine commissioned a couple pictures for a now defunct section of the magazine. They asked me to locate some subjects and photograph them in the same way I did my usual office work. One of the subjects was a financial planner, Mario Pitchon, and I photographed him at his desk, explaining it was for the Times magazine section. When the picture ran I was terribly dismayed that the editor chose a photo in which he had a ridiculous smirk on his face. It seemed almost mean spirited and I felt so bad I had to call him and apologize. To his credit he was understanding. I put one of the photos from that session on my web site - one that I would have chosen."

Financial Planner, New York City, Steven Ahlgren

Financial Planner, New York City, Steven Ahlgren

"When I most feel the pressure of expectations, and usually I don’t measure up very well, is when I’m occasionally asked to photograph someone as a favor. I remember a wonderful recollection by Larry Sultan in his book 'Pictures from Home', when he was asked by his mother to photograph her for a newspaper article. She was a realtor and had received a sales award. As he describes it, she hated the photo so much she had to tell her friends that he wasn’t available to make the picture and she had to hire “some hack photographer.” I can relate to that story."

What's your favorite place to see photographs? Why?

STEVE: "My favorite place to see photographs is in books, at home, in a comfortable chair, and perhaps with some wine or whiskey. I often go to museums and galleries to see work but always feel a bit shortchanged. Other people and their conversations distract me, making it hard to linger over the images very long. After an hour or so of standing my feet get tired. Maybe if these places could just put in some nice chairs in front of each work it would be a different story.

For example, last April I went to Washington to see the Robert Frank show of The Americans at the National Gallery. It was nice seeing all the vintage prints on the wall but in the end when I got home and went through the book, yet another time, slowly and quietly - page by page - I still got more out of it."

What contemporary photographers or artists are you most interested in these days?

STEVE: "Michael Schmidt and Paul Graham. When Graham's "shimmer of possibility" was first announced I pre-ordered a set since I have enjoyed all of his other books. When I first got it I was disappointed, but I kept wanting to come back to it. It's holding up pretty well after many months now. Schmidt's books 'Irgendwo', 'Waffenruhe' and 'Berlin Nach 45' - along with countless cups of coffee - have been my ritual companions for many very early mornings over the past year. The interview with Schmidt at the end of 'Irgendwo' is also fantastic. Yesterday I came across Gerhard Richter's 'Atlas' at the library and that will probably begin to take up some more free time."

Waffenruhe, 1985-7, Michael Schmidt

Paul Graham, Shimmer of Possibility,

Who do you think is one of the most under examined or underrated photographers? Someone whose work should be seen more often and in more places?

STEVE: "Doug Dubois for one. Today I hope to receive in the mail his first book 'All the Days and Nights' and maybe it will bring him some more attention. Also Mark Steinmetz, who seems to quietly produce wonderful work in whatever town he finds himself in."

Family Photos, Doug Dubois, 1984-1992

Luke in the Hotel, Mystic Seaport, CT, Doug Dubois, 1984

South Central, Mark Steinmetz, 1982-1989

Children, Mark Steinmetz, 1991-1993

If you could possess one photograph from the history of the medium which one would it be and why?

STEVE: "Atget's Fete du Trone (1925) - the photograph of the chair and shoe of Armand the Giant and the chair and shoe of the dwarf. It’s so simple and direct, yet so full of fact and feeling. I've looked at that picture now for over thirty years and the thrill of it still hasn't worn off. I just need to have a copy of it nearby for another thirty or (hopefully) forty years to get me through."

Fete du Trone, Eugene Atget, 1925

If photography ceased to exist and you had to choose a medium in which to express your self which medium would you choose?

STEVE: "At first I was tempted to say music or architecture, but I will instead say anything which the computer has not yet totally consumed - maybe carpentry or cooking."

Photography, in all it's genres, is more popular than ever. For decades it fought to be valued as highly as all the other creative mediums. More schools are offering it as a subject of study. More galleries and museums are exhibiting photographs and more individuals are pursuing photography as a vocation. Do you have any concern that photography is perhaps becoming a victim of its own success? That the stunning volume of pictures being produced and consumed in all contexts has somehow demeaned the value of the medium and individual images?

STEVE: "No, I think it’s great. For so long “serious” photography has had such a small audience, and even with the growth you mention it still is pretty unknown to the general public. Whenever I mention to someone I am a photographer they assume I do weddings. Maybe with more work by more photographers out there - in museums, galleries and books - people’s perceptions of what photography can be about might widen.

If you threw a croissant over your shoulder in Paris in the twenties you’d probably hit a painter - yet those circumstance don’t diminish how much we now value the best of the work created then. Granted anytime you have too much of anything it makes it harder to figure out what is of value. Recently I tried unsuccessfully to convince my daughters of this in regards to their toys.

Time will pass and those ahead of us will make the choices of what pictures will be valued and preserved. From this I take the lesson that you can’t make work with the hope - or worse expectation - that it will endure. It seems more reasonable, and in the end more rewarding, to occupy your time making work that pleases you and leave it at that."

You can see more of Steve's work at www.StevenAhlgren.com

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