Allan Sekula, photo works

Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” (Sekula 1984, p 58)

Sekula uses documentary style photography to pursue his explorations as a kind of ‘social practice’, interrogating systems of representation that serve political and economic purposes. His photography is the embodiment of his critical theory, which engages with realities of the contemporary world rather than obfuscation and academic hyperbole. He describes how he was attracted to photography’s social referentiality – its ability to describe, often in superficial, reductive, misleading or ambiguous terms, social institutions, behaviours and relationships, or what he calls its ‘indexical relationship’ with reality.

“… photography seemed to me to afford an alternative to the overly specialised, esoteric, and self-referential discourse of late modernism, which had, to offer only one crude example, nothing much to say about the Vietnam War.” (ibid, p ix)

As far as I can gather, one of Sekula’s early performances was a piece entitled Body Bags, which dealt with the Vietnam War from a critical perspective. I can find no visual record online, though Fred Lonidier mentions his role as photographer in an obituary to Sekula on the Solidarity website here.

Cultural upheaval in the US during the latter stages of the Vietnam War began to question institutional authority and systems of knowledge and representation. Power structures were also critiqued, and marginalized groups were given a voice thanks to the civil rights movement, feminism and post-colonialism. At the same time, although there were US soldiers returning from the front with physical and psychological impairments, there was no significant movement for readdressing disability issues – as conveyed in Oliver Stone’s celebrated dramatisation of the life of Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July. It is interesting to note that Kovic himself was not actually a disability rights activist (although he did lead a protest about the poor treatment of returning veterans), and continues to be an anti-war campaigner.

…somewhat naively perhaps, I began to try combining words and groupings of photographs in ways that sought to incorporate and to invite a political dialogue.” Sekula claims this is something more easily achieved in theatre or in cinema, citing the work of Brecht and Godard, but also Peter Weiss, of whom I am not aware (look up). “One attraction and challenge of photography was its dumb resistance to language, its way of suppressing in a static moment its often dialogical social origins.” This could be conceived of as the image that does not function without a text. In looking at the work of Sander and Arbus, Sekula discussed the fact that their portraits are the wordless culmination of obviously wordy encounters, and as this led him to develop an interest in verbal interviews and to begin using tape recorders to record them, in much the same way as I did – wishing for the story behind the subject (as opposed to the story behind the photograph, which has a certain marketable aspect to it, but is of absolutely no value other than to photo amateurs or biographers). I also found the 2 dimensional rectangular photographic print too limiting, but at the same time too open to interpretation. Here Sekula mentions David Antin and Studs Terkel, whose work I need to look up.

On a more practical, material level photography and audiotape recording were cheaper and less demanding technically than either theatrical or documentary filmmaking – both beyond my grasp – and open to being used in ways that kept close to the visible events and patterns of everyday life and the flow of mundane talk, argument, reminiscence, and self-justification.” Again, our reasons for not being able to make the shift collude, but I would also add a certain hesitance on my part from a technical point of view – not only were video cameras expensive, they were also a different beast to try and master. Although as Strand showed, the sense of atmosphere and composition can fundamentally be the same, it is still a wholly different approach to recording visual subjects. Although Sekula seems to work in a documentary style, his views on realism are interesting to note:

Any interest I had in artifice and constructed dialogue was part of a search for a certain “realism,” a realism not of appearances or social facts but of everyday experience in and against the grip of advanced capitalism. This realism sought to brush traditional realism against the grain. Against the photoessayistic promise of “life” caught by the camera, I sought to work from within a world already replete with signs.” Rather than trying to capture life on the go, the decisive moments of Cartier-Bresson et al, Sekula was concerned with attitudes, stances, relationships. These are much harder things to photograph than appearances or facts. The ‘realism’ comes through in the narrative flow of ideas through the body of work, the ensemble, and is not represented by a single well-composed shot at exactly the right moment. It is a construction rather than claiming to be a truth document. “The emphasis is these photo works has consistently been on the ensemble, and not on the formal or semantic success or failure of the single image. This seemed the only reasonable way to shift photography away from its affiliations with painting and printmaking and toward an investigation of its shared and unshared ground with literature and cinema.” Sekula also says it was an attempt to counter tendencies of incorporating photography into museums – as I understand it, he was also trying to move away from the two-dimensional rectangle on the wall, the photograph as art object to be commodified. I have already looked at the tendency for photojournalism and documentary to move into the gallery or coffee table book in a bid to reach an audience, but as has been pointed out, the photograph then changes its value or currency; it is no longer relevant as the document it was first created to be, but functions as an artefact, a marketable commodity with a price tag attached. Is this what I want from my work?

Unlike most modernists (and most photographers are still committed to modernism, bewildered by the irony lurking in their invitation into the cafeteria of postmodernism) I am not particularly interested in cultivating an “individual style.” And unlike many postmodernists, I am not concerned with an art based on the fatalistic play of quotations and “appropriations” of already existing images, especially when that play emerges from an idealist isolation of the “image-world” from its material conditions.” Sekula is quite denigrating of photographers in general, both those following modernist and post-modernist paths. I think his point is that modernism has nothing further to say – it has all already been said (and very well) by the likes of Strand and Weston; postmodernism, in Sekula’s opinion, is shallow and refuses to engage with ‘real’ current social conditions, despite its claim to political and sociological critique, since it tends to regurgitate its own antecedents in a kind of intellectual masturbation.

I was surprised to find out that Sekula was also drawn to combining photographs with text, as well as spoken word, before then moving into film. His work Aerospace Folktales combines photographs of a former Lockheed employee together with his family at home, recorded interviews, even photographs of the contents of the engineer’s bookshelf, his CV and what appears to be a family photo album; Sekula calls it a disassembled movie. It has 3 separate narrative elements that combined in one exhibition space, photographic prints followed by the artist’s commentary and the soundtrack playing in the space. I like the way the 3 narratives are discrete but somehow connected, not necessarily illustrating or complementing, but enriching each other. Refusing to speak to any degree of depth about the production and montage of his work, Sekula affirms: “The function of text is not to introduce certainty. My hope is that the present context will allow these works to be read as “chapters” in a larger discontinuous work.” As I have said, the texts are not to be read as captions, in any way attempting to answer questions or solve the visual material in any way. In this sense, Sekula’s output is much more abstract than mine is intended to be. Although I do not want the text to explain the visuals in any way, the connection must be there for the message to be more easily read. I am not trying to challenge viewers intellectually so much as morally, to get them to question their own values and stereotypes.

I like the space he has given to his subject matter, space for questions without necessarily holding the subject up to scrutiny; this is a fine balance – he calls it a ‘movement between mock-sociological distance and familiarity’. It was actually his own family that he recorded, and it came about as Sekula began questioning his own politics, which in his opinion necessitated an analysis of his own class and background. The kinds of material he recorded are the kinds of material that I am looking for. I still do not know how much will be film based or still photography based. I want to collect as much material as I can and I think that the individual narratives will unfold during this process, and that will determine the way in which the narrative is to be told and through which media.

Sekula points out that unlike cinema, discontinuity and incompletion are fundamental elements of photography, despite attempts to construct reassuring notions of organic unity and coherence at the level of the single image. As such, we are faced with the problem of multiple readings (Sekula refers to Benjamin’s Afterlife of the work of art) and the fragility of authorship, especially when it comes to the role of the editor.

However, this is merely the latest stage in the prolonged crisis of subjectivity at the heart of bourgeois culture. Photography, in its mechanical character, in its instrumental affiliation with bureaucratic rationalism, in its acceleration and quantitative extension of visual representation, has long been understood as a threat to the category of the author in the visual arts.

Early criticism by artists at the apparent lack of handwork or artisanal skill in photography led to the modernist photographers to regard photographs as the products of pure thought, intellectual rather than manual. He speaks of Benjamin’s challenge to cultural history, the bourgeois reduction of culture to fetishistic commodities (reification), which he sees as barbaric. Using this as his fundament, Sekula says his goal is to try and understand what he terms ‘the traffic in photographs’ – the social systems and processes involved in the production, circulation and reception of photographs in a world of commodity production and exchange. Sekula regards himself as being in opposition to contemporary trends of “conferr[ing] a new prestige upon sectors of mass culture“.

In his more recent work, Sekula is concerned with Marxist issues of labour and consumption, but rather than idyllic nostalgia, celebrating manual labour and pre-modern systems of subsistence (like Strand or Mohr), Sekula engages with modern systems of capitalist economy and commerce as manifestations of global human and environmental crises. His Fish Story is an epic study of the international shipping industry, which analyses the impact of globalisation on people, communities, labour and seaports. Sekula identifies the shipping container as the key to globalisation – the multicoloured rectangular steel boxes that contain unidentified goods and look rather like a child’s building blocks, traversing the world’s seas like huge floating warehouses. Sekula points out that despite our contemporary tendency to believe that everything is digitised and automated, that transactions occur at the flick of a switch or the click of a cursor, the truth is that goods move physically across the globe at a very slow rate and the human factor of labour is however anonymous and overlooked, ultimately present and unavoidable.

My argument here runs against the commonly held view that the computer and telecommunications are the sole engines of the third industrial revolution. In effect, I am arguing for the continued importance of maritime space in order to counter the exaggerated importance attached to that largely metaphysical construct, “cyberspace”, and the corollary myth of “instantaneous” contact between distant spaces.” (Sekula 1995, p 50)

I saw the exhibition when I attended Documenta XI in Kassel, and I recall being struck by the quality of the prints (cibachrome).

The spin off film, Forgotten Space, is a collaboration with filmmaker Noël Burch, and they refer to it as an essay film.

Our premise is that the sea remains the crucial space of globalization. Nowhere else is the disorientation, violence, and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest, but this truth is not self-evident, and must be approached as a puzzle, or mystery, a problem to be solved.” (from the website

The photographs and film stills show fragmented glimpses of the maritime industry and its effects. The film itself is not available online, but I did find quite a long excerpt (18 minutes) which gives a good idea about the whole film project.

In an online interview, Sekula gives an insight into his visual (photographic and video work) as well as curatorial practice:


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