A white-collar worker is seated by his desk. A blue-collar worker is at his feet, shining the man's shoes. The shoe-shine 'boy' - who must be in his 60s, judging by his craggy features - looks up at his employer with stoic contempt. But the younger man trumps such disdain by not even deigning to return the gaze; he is busy with the work balanced on his knee. This is Lawyers' office, New York, 1997, by the Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk, and it is an example of documentary photography at its best: capturing the moment in a narrative where the subtext of the scene is exposed.
To contextualise such contemporary work, 'The Office' also includes a number of historical photographs. These show how offices have changed over the decades: from vast, open-plan typing pools to modular cubicle systems; from filing cabinets to mechanical storage systems to individual computer workstations. It's notable that, as these images move through the years, the offices appear to get messier, culminating in sheets of A4 avalanching down the sides of document mountains from the late-1990s onwards. As administrative tasks have been automated by the PC and manual labour has given way to cognitive labour, so every worker has had to become an office manager - both of themselves and their computer. It's a situation that many obviously find overwhelming.
It is this situation that is hinted at in Thomas Demand's 1995 photograph Büro, which presents a life-size office that Demand has constructed entirely out of paper and card. The scene depicted is a small office with a paper-strewn table and a set of drawers turned out. It might be a joke about the Orwellian properties of the phrase 'paperless office', but the image suggests the aftermath of a crime, a desperate search, or an act of office rage. The unsettling tension in this carefully staged work is taken a step further in Niall Blankley's new series of images. These depict workstations in nightmarish states of disrepair, filled with such office-flotsam as old newspapers, kettles, cans of insect spray, dirty mugs, cable spaghetti, cats, telephones, coils of insect-encrusted flypaper. In many of the photographs the desks are uncomfortably close to tiny, squalid cupboard lavatories. The most disturbing aspect of this series is that you cannot immediately tell whether these are documentary photographs or Mike Nelson-style constructions. Only after spotting a recycling of props are you reassured that these are fictional environments.
The Ghanaian photographer Philip Kwame Apagya also presents fictional environments. At his studio Apagya offers clients a stage backcloth painted to resemble an office - including PCs, desks and an amusingly distorted world map - before which they can pose as if working. But you can tell that these are not real offices; the subjects are far too happy. Apagya's photographs, collectively titled 'Booming Internet', which dates them to 2000, bring a valuable perspective to the documentary works that dominate the exhibition.
Of the documentary photography, Tunbjörk's best images are certainly the most revealing. Julia Knop's photographs of computer programmers in India seem preoccupied with the quality of light there, although her unsettling image of a waiting room - complete with greasy hair marks on the wall behind the chairs - shows that climate and culture do not change such spaces. Tim Davis' photographs, taken during his time working for a publishing company in New York, lack bite: they have the literalness of both conceptual art and stock photography, but are not rigorous enough for the former and presumably aren't meant to be the latter. Michael Schmidt's series of double portraits from the 70s, depicting office workers both at home and at work, promises more as an idea than it delivers in images.
Jacqueline Hassink uses a similar double-image technique: her large-scale photographs of Californian software engineers' favourite screen images are coupled with views of the individual workers' workstations, filled as they are with the freebie, emotionally impoverished promotional junk that we so often 'personalise' our working environments with. David Moore has no such fly-on-the-wall pretensions. His workers are spotlit against a black background, a tactic that produces one of the most remarkable images in the exhibition. In a close-cropped portrait, a young woman, seen in profile, engages in the unappealing and typically British activity of eating her lunch - a pre-packed sandwich - at her desk. An unremarkable scene, perhaps, but Moore shows just why this habit has continental Europeans scratching their heads in bewilderment. The young woman, with her kempt hair shining as brightly as her gold wedding band in the theatrical light, is evidently well-off. And yet in this image she is debased; against the black background her hunched posture and uncomfortable expression suggest nothing more than a wretched scavenger.
Two artists work with video in the exhibition: John Pilson's three-screen Mr Pick-up depicts a clumsy office worker trying to pick up items that he keeps knocking over in a 17-minute slapstick routine, and Sofia Hultén's Grey Area shows a young, female worker hiding in a variety of office environments. The two works complement each other; embarrassment and the desire to hide are common emotional states in offices. However, the inclusion of video works highlights an aspect of office life that the exhibition fails to address, and that is the rise of the internet and its use by employees for non-work-related acts of spontaneous creativity. The web is filled with video footage, not unlike Hultén's, of office workers amusing themselves in sometimes quite revealing ways (the inevitable result of highly educated staff left bored and unfulfilled in technologically equipped environments). This networking is under-explored here, as are the social aspects of office relations, and many of the myriad other aspects of office life.
But this exhibition is a beginning. Offices may seem ubiquitous to many British citizens, with millions of people spending most of their waking hours in them, but you wouldn't know it by looking at contemporary art. These temporary, flexible, apparently neutral workspaces carry great social and personal significance, and the office phenomenon - as prosaic and repellent as it may sometimes be - deserves further investigation by imaginative curators. Because The Photographers' Gallery has such a variety of perspectives (a result of its commitment to a range of photographic practices, whether antagonistic to each other or not), this show feels like a fragment of a vast museum exhibition, which it really ought to be. On occasion the gallery has worked with temporary exhibition spaces to put on larger events running across several venues - this is one exhibition that could certainly have sustained the greater volume.
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