Executive Order: Images of 1970s Corporate America

For more than 40 years, Susan Ressler has been photographing affluence in America – in particular, the power relations that inhere in corporate and consumer culture. In Executive Order, Ressler invites us to examine the executive boardrooms, private offices, and lobbies of businesses that became especially prominent during the 1970s in downtown Los Angeles and other urban environments in the Mountain West. Ressler’s images provide a fascinating critique of corporate America during this period of explosive growth when profits were increasingly preempting people. Her work, which has an undercurrent of cool detachment coupled with a dose of irony, combines images devoid of people allowing us to see the hollowness of these modern work spaces, with portraits of employees playing the typical roles assigned to them in the new American economy.

The Capital Group, (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)
The Capital Group, (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)

From Executive Disorder, an essay by Mark Rice

In How We Got Here (2000), David Frum plumbed the 1970s for essential truths about contemporary American life, seeing in that decade the engines of economic and social transformation that, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “brought [us] modern life—for better or worse.” Frum called the 1970s “a time of unease and despair, punctuated by disaster.” He was writing in the waning days of the twentieth century, with Bill Clinton in the White House and a fog of unease and nostalgia misting the land. But if he was worried about the state of American life in 2000, he is even more concerned now in 2017.

Perhaps most importantly, the country has installed Donald Trump in the White House. Frum’s cover story of the March 2017 issue of The Atlantic, “How to Build an Autocracy,” spells out how the Trump administration could lead the United States away from liberal democracy. Widely read and widely admired, Frum grimly assesses the current political situation, seeing in Trump threats to American life that are perhaps unlike any encountered in the past.

[Mark Rice] opens with Frum’s analyses of contemporary American life in order to draw attention to the fact that Susan Ressler’s collection of photographs, Executive Order, comes at an opportune time. Her images of corporate America were made in the mid to late 1970s and provide a glimpse inside a rising economic order as they reveal the reception rooms and inner sancta of premier corporate of office spaces. They were made at a pivotal point both in the postindustrial shifts of the American economy and in American photography, when a younger generation of photographers grappled with questions of aesthetics and epistemologies.

Susan Ressler was a participant in one of the largest and most ambitious of the National Endowment of the Arts surveys: the Los Angeles Documentary Project (1979–80). She was selected to participate “on the basis of [her] familiarity with Los Angeles and on the strengths of [the] documentary work” that she had already completed, both in Los Angeles and in other cities of the American West and Southwest.

Vidal Sassoon (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)
Vidal Sassoon (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)

Ressler took her camera into the lobbies and offices of the city’s recently redeveloped downtown. There, she found a variety of signifiers of the new American economy: symbols of class, gender, and racial hierarchies in the physical spaces and in the people who, though mostly unseen, are very much present in her photographs.

While her earlier photographs often included people enacting typified roles in the new American economy, she eventually opted to exclude people in order to concentrate on the surface planes and symbolic objects in their of offices. Both approaches have powerful effects. While the inclusion of people allows us to recognize that real human activity (in all its messy details) goes on in these sites, the removal of people allows us to focus on the hollowness at the heart of corporate America.

System Development Corporation (SDC) (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)
System Development Corporation (SDC) (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)

All of Ressler’s photographs in this book return us to a moment when the American West and Southwest were in full bloom, with the rise of the so-called Sun Belt shifting the center of gravity of the American economy, politics, and population away from the Northeast to the South and the West. Energy, aerospace, and high technology were some of the main drivers of the economic shifts taking place.

There is ambiguity in many of Ressler’s photographs that include people, too. In White Blazer we are clearly in an inner office, but of what sort? A man stands confidently behind his desk in a double-breasted white suit jacket; he’s young and bearded, his hair coiffed in an unmistakably 1970s fashion. Two empty chairs are on the other side of the desk, their backs to us.

He has a small stack of magazines, a pen holder, a telephone, and an intercom system. Behind him is a wall of wavy, semi-transparent glass through which we can see what looks to be a person leaning over another who is leaning back in a chair of some sort. Is it a dentist’s office? Is it a mannequin instead of another person back there? It’s unclear, but the eerie disembodied legs seen through the frosted glass echo the executive’s unseen legs behind the desk.

Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)
Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) (from the Los Angeles Documentary Project)

So what has become of these markers of the new 1970s economy that Ressler preserved so meticulously in Executive Order? Read the rest of Mark Rice’s essay in Susan Ressler’s new book Executive Order: Images of 1970s Corporate America. Now available for purchase at Daylight Books.

Susan Ressler

Susan Ressler is a renowned artist, author, and educator who has been making social documentary photographs for more than forty years. Her work is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library and Archives Canada, and many other important collections. A recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowships, Ressler is widely exhibited and her photographs have been published in numerous catalogs as well as the journals Exposure, Ten.8, and Camera. Ressler edited and co-authored the book Women Artists of the American West (McFarland, 2003), a scholarly anthology that featured under-represented women artists west of the Mississippi River in fifteen groundbreaking essays by notable authors including Martha A. Sandweiss, Peter E. Palmquist, and Tee A. Corinne. In tandem with this book, Ressler developed one of the first online courses and web archives about women artists at Purdue University, where she was Head of the Photography Area and taught photographic practice, theory, and history in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts from 1981 to 2004. She is currently Professor Emerita, Purdue University, and continues to make photographs that critique consumer culture and other socially relevant issues that shape the world as we know it today. She makes her home in Taos, New Mexico.

Mark Rice

Mark Rice is an award-winning author and the founding chair of the American Studies Department at St. John Fisher College near Rochester, New York. He has published two books and contributed essays on photography and visual culture to scholarly journals such as History of Photography, American Quarterly, Exposure, and Reviews in American History. Rice’s first book, Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s (University Press of Mississippi, 2005), examined an important but previously overlooked endeavor to photograph American cities during the bicentennial era. Administered by the National Endowment for the Arts from 1976 to 1981, these surveys included the Los Angeles Documentary Project, possibly the most significant record of the Los Angeles area from that time period. Rice’s second book, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines (University of Michigan Press, 2014), and Ateneo de Manila (University Press, 2015), discussed efforts to use photography to promote an American imperial agenda in the Philippines in the early years of the twentieth century. It won the Gintong Aklat (Golden Book) Award for the social sciences, one of the most prestigious publishing prizes in the Philippines, and was also a finalist for the Philippine National Book Award in History.