You can interpret photographer Susan Ressler’s new book “Executive Order” in many ways.
It’s a look at the affluent culture of corporate America during the late 1970s in Los Angeles; how documentary photography can be accepted as a fine art; how it relates to the present and what it says about today’s political climate; or maybe a statement about race and gender diversity in the corporate world.
That’s not what Ressler thought of at the time, but picked up on years later.
“That’s the interesting thing about bringing pictures out years later, me as a photographer, I just know so much more now.”
In the early ’70s, Ressler, already a documentary photographer, was on her first big project living on a Native American reserve in northern Quebec, Canada, with an anthropologist. She was there to photograph the community, but what she found were people who where impoverished and suffering in so many ways.
“I was really starting to question the fact that so much of documentary photography is done where the photographer is in a privileged position and the subject is often poor or underprivileged,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable about the the fact of my position versus their position, and that had a huge effect on me.”
Ressler then decided to flip the script and start photographing the wealth and power in America.
In 1977, while finishing up her graduate work at the University of New Mexico, she started photographing banks and offices. She started in Albuquerque and went up to Denver before realizing the places she wanted to photograph were in Los Angeles.
“In Los Angeles, you can’t really see the layers of the past like you can in New York and Chicago. There is something about the West, it’s more likely to jump into the future. I always felt that in Los Angeles you can see the future before it happens.”
In Los Angeles, Ressler became one of eight photographers to participate in a National Endowment for the Arts survey called the Los Angeles Documentary Project. There, each photographer documented Los Angeles in their own style and inspirations. While many of the photographers worked outdoors, Ressler worked inside in the lobbies and offices of the city’s redeveloped downtown.
She was able to gain access to many companies, including some Fortune 500 companies, like Honeywell, Northrop, which merged with Grumman in 1984, Bank of America, and Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), which has been bought and sold many times but is now under Andeavor, and merging with Marathon Petroleum.
“You could never do this project now,” she said, “This was an era before 9/11, people were not as worried about security back then.” She wasn’t able to photograph in the CEOs’ offices, but she did have people move objects around in the lobbies of them.
All of her photographs almost “completely eliminate” the outside world. One picture in particular, “Northrop,” shows a model fighter jet pointing at three globes, Mars, Earth, and the moon on top of pedestals. Ressler felt it to be one of the more interesting shots. Taken in the Northrop offices, it is the only image in which she used a flash. In the image, the window is pure white from the brightness of outside and almost looks like the sun blazing down on the globes. The smoked glass pedestals in front seem to block out the light to where you can see the exterior of the aerospace firm.
Ressler’s photos are very precise and geometric, so much so that it makes these “cookie-cutter spaces” look sterile. She would bring out aspects of the space that would emphasize its bleakness. “I kind of did that on purpose,” she said, on the orderliness of the spaces. “Do you take it as a comment of the hollowness and sterility of corporate America? Or the lack of humanity? Or do you take it another way?”
Race, class, and gender all play big roles in her photographs. Most of Ressler’s photos for the Los Angeles project excluded people. Forty years later, while selecting photos for her book, she became aware of the importance of the lack of diversity.
“I was really aware of some of the women, it seems that they tried to present themselves where they tried to make themselves alluring,” she said. “And that was a way for some of the women to have power at that time, through their sexuality.”
One photo that she had never printed or exhibited, until now, really struck her. Titled “Bow Tie,” it was the only image where she photographed a subject looking up.
“I thought ‘Wow, look at the way I am angled looking up at this woman, she looks so monumental and powerful.'” Unlike the other women, she is dressed very ambiguous for the time period.
Ressler’s photos were taken during a pivotal time in America.
“The country was in a funk,” with high unemployment, inflation, a fuel crisis, etc. “I felt it was really important to bring this work out now.”
To see Ressler’s images, click through the gallery above.