Robin L. Dahlberg, Billable Hours: in 6-minute increments

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Daylight Books (here). Hardcover (8 x 10 inches), 96 pages, with 60 color images. Includes essays by Leigh Gilmore and Eleanor M. Fox. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Robin Dahlberg, a New York-based visual artist and arts educator, came to photography later in life, after a career as a lawyer (she was a civil rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union). Now in her practice as an artist, she uses her own experience to examine how the corporate environment affects employees’ lives and their relationships with others. Dahlberg graduated from law school at a time when women were starting to enter the legal profession in large numbers. Years later, she is able to reflect on the many overlooked challenges faced by professional women with a sense of humor and irony. In her photobook titled Billable Hours in 6 Minute Increments, Dahlberg looks back at her first job as an attorney at a large corporate law office in New York city. 

The book has a yellow cloth cover, and a small tipped-in image of a woman going up the stairs, shot from the above, appears in the center. Billable Hours is a simple book, without elaborate design or production elements. Inside, the photographs vary in sizes and their placement, but usually have a generous amount of white space around them. The book was originally published in 2016 in a small edition of 30 copies, and this trade edition has been re-edited and includes new photographs. 

Dahlberg takes us inside a corporate law office, and uses photographs, mostly staged, to recreate one of its typical days. The book opens with a photograph of a painting hanging in an office, and the edges of an office plant appear in the frame. It shows a serious man in a suit (perhaps the firm’s founder or senior partner) seated at his desk with fingers crossed. This typical law office decor (with its imposing historical implications for a younger female lawyer) serves as a prelude to the narrative of the book, and is followed by the spread with the title and the artist’s name. In the visual narrative that follows, Dahlberg takes us “behind the firms’ public facades of camaraderie, competence and good manners.”

The first photograph is an image of a typical New York office building, shot from street level – it looks grandiose, dominant, and cold. It is followed by a spread with two photographs, taken moments apart, showing a silhouette of a man through the glass entrance doorway confidently walking in the corridor. “Time is money,” reads the text on the next page, a well-known phrase attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but particularly applicable to the way the legal profession works. Then, there is a photo of a woman captured as she is about to open the same door; she carries a jacket, a suitcase, and her body language indicates that she is in a rush and overwhelmed. Welcome to the firm. 

Dahlberg’s photographs highlight the rhythms of the clean and cold office space, with recurring piles of files and papers, coffee cups, and donuts. Against this backdrop, in image after image, she exposes the subtle power dynamics and existing hierarchies. She portrays the world dominated mostly by white men, largely overconfident and assertive, while women have secondary and support roles. A photo of a woman awkwardly walking in the office with a pile of documents so high that it hides her face and is about to collapse is followed by a bigger image of a man casually scrolling through his iPhone with a huge Renaissance painting behind him, clearly working in a different way.

Perhaps the most surreal photograph in the book shows a woman’s legs sprawled on the floor under the table in a conference room with a dozen pencils and markers spread all around, amplifying the craziness of the work. Just before it, an image of a senior partner talking with a group of younger colleagues (all men), offers a telling contrast – the woman is working flat out, doing the dirty jobs, while the men are standing around thinking and listening, with the women left out. This sequence is then followed by a photo of the artist herself in her office with her feet on the desk as she looks right into the camera, the half a dozen Coke Zeros on the desk evidence of the grueling schedule. Clearly, the office life here is full of high stress and long hours, with trauma and anxiety hiding just underneath the surface. 

One of the last images in the photobook shows a woman’s finger pressing the ground floor button in the elevator, marking the end of a long day. Yet the photograph that follows – a shot of a living room with a broom and a dustpan – hints at the never ending housework women also have to do when they get home, and that too often goes unnoticed or unappreciated.

A number of recent photobooks have insightfully looked at various aspects of life in corporate offices. Endia Beal explored many issues Black women face in the American corporate workplace in her superb photobook Performance Review (reviewed here), and Jessica Vaughn looked at the intersection of governmental policy, race, and gender diversity in Depreciating Assets (reviewed here). The comical elements of Dahlberg’s book also bring to mind Florian van Roekel’s book How Terry likes His Coffee, where the photographs were taken in five different companies, turning rather boring and uneventful office life into a surreal comedy. 

While Billable Hours focuses on the specifics of a law firm, it certainly reflects a broader swath of American corporate culture. Many of the obstacles women still face today in the workplace are not unexpected or new, but as Dahlberg depicts them with humor and absurdity, they become painfully obvious. In a way, Billable Hours is also a memorable protest photobook, using the metaphorical message of its visuals as a way to smartly reflect and expose gender inequalities and the lack of support for women in the corporate world.

Collector’s POV: Robin L. Dahlberg does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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