Allan Sekula

ALLAN SEKULA     1951-2013

Terry Smith

During the last hour of the overnight ferry journey from Karlskrona, Sweden, to Gdynia, Poland, the port of Gdansk enters then entirely fills your horizon. For centuries one of the great, and most-contested, seaports of the world, it was in 1980 the birthplace of the Solidarity uprising. As Poland embraces “turbo-capitalism,” its most visible parts have erupted into energetic life. Even the ferry takes a full half hour to disgorge its cargo of trucks.  Remembering Allan Sekula’s fascination with this place, and its role within his major series of photographs Fish Story 1989-1995, we know to take such self-serving narratives with skepticism, to treat their fabulating with reserve, to look around us (as we do within his photographs) for the work that is actually being done––or not done when it should be done––by skilled individuals and dedicated machines. Since the late 1970s, his images have taught us to measure, carefully and critically, the settings in which labor takes place, to ask: who made this place, how did they do so, and why, in whose interests?  We learn to scan these worlds, and our worlds, to ask: how are they holding up, are they being adequately maintained, how might they be improved?  He made visible the world’s larger processes––as they unfold right before your eyes, in this particular place and time––through lens at once historical and materialist. These processes are indeed world historical in their flow, and especially in their force, but––as he knew, and showed us in image after image––they also exist as facts about things and as the irreducible constituents of individual experience. No matter how global in character, they occur to each of us. After spending the morning in the Gdansk region thinking of such things, and of him, when I arrived in Warsaw that evening, I learnt that, two days earlier, the cancer against which he had struggled with such grace for some years had finally claimed him.

Alan Sekula was born in 1951 in Erie, Pennsylvania, and died August 10, 2013.  A third-generation descendant of Polish emigrants to the US, his grandfather was a blacksmith and his father an engineer working in the aerospace industries in Sacramento, California.  Sekula traced these histories in two key image-text series: Aerospace Folktales (1973) and Polonia and Other Fables (2007-2009). Based in Los Angeles for much of his working life, he taught photography and critical theory at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia. 

Sekula’s formative years during the early and mid-1970s were spent as a student at the University of San Diego inside an extraordinary intellectual milieu, where the New Left was most concentrated in the US. Many of his projects are best understood as propositions towards the reinvention of documentary in photography, video and film. First steps were shared with Phil Steinmetz, Fred Lonidier, and Martha Rosler––the latter two continue to work inventively in this vein. At the time, these artists were fully aware of the conflicted legacy left to them by US photography: the early twentieth century divide between instrumentalist documentary (Lewis Hine) and pictorialist aestheticism (Alfred Stieglitz); the switching between modernist aesthetics and realist documentation within the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers; the triumph of propaganda during the war years, and the retreat to the vernacular and the natural sublime during the Cold War; finally, the moves towards abstraction, surrealism and experimentalism on the part of their immediate predecessors among photographers. They recognized that these recent tendencies fell short of both the “political modernism” being theorized by UCSD professors such as Herbert Marcuse and Fredric Jameson and of the direct political engagement that the times required. For this, a new kind of documentary style was called for; Sekula came to shorthand it as “critical realism.”

It can be argued that Sekula theorized this revised realism more completely than anyone else, did so before anyone else, and before he realized it in its most convincing forms in his own practice. A series of essays written between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s were ground-breaking, and they remain foundational. They include “The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War,” Artforum, 14:4 (December 1975): 26-35; “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” Artforum, 13:5 (January 1975): 36-45; “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation),” The Massachusetts Review, 19:4 (December 1978): 859-83; “Photography between Labour and Capital,” in B. Buchloh and R. Wilkie, eds., Mining Photographs and Other Pictures: A Selection from the Negative Archives of Shedden Studio, Glace Bay, Cape Breton, 1948-1968. Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design: 193-268; and “The Body and the Archive,” October 39, Winter 1986: 3-64.  The first three are collected in Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973-1983, The Nova Scotia Series: Source Materials of the Contemporary Arts, Vol. XVI, ed. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh and Robert Wilkie (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984).

Subsequent books are tied to his photographic series, which increasingly moved from didactic statement to subtle interactions between images and texts, treating the facts of the matter as occasions for low key, direct and persistent probing, as if words and pictures searched always for the truth at hand, knowing that neither would find it, but that their interplay might at least suggest it. Dear Bill Gates is a set of photographs in which the artist recorded his “action” during the 1999 mass protests against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Sekula swam as close as he could to the waterfront property of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and controller of the image archive Corbis.  Later that day Sekula used a manual typewriter to produce an anonymous letter commenting on the billionaire’s recent purchase of a Winslow Homer painting of doomed fishermen. The letter concludes with “…as for you, Bill, when you are on the Net, are you lost? Or found? And the rest of us––lost and found––are we on it, or in it?” [See

For many years, Sekula’s work was devalued within contemporary art circles, especially in the United States, as being wedded to an anachronistic documentary mode. Fellowships and grants––including the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim, DAAD, and the Getty Institute––enabled him to keep working.  Key series were exhibited and collected in Europe, especially in Spain, Holland, and Germany, and were included in major biennials such as Documenta 2002 and 2007. The first retrospective of his work was presented at the Zacheta National Museum of Art, Warsaw, in 2009.  Since 2000 he has been represented in the US by Christopher Grimes gallery, Los Angeles. To their shame, until recent years few major museums in the US showed more than passing interest.  Fish Story entered the collection of MoMA, New York, six days before his death.

Sekula’s will be remembered as an artist, writer and theorist who, more than any of his contemporaries, put in the hard yards to penetrate the veils of abstraction and ideological obfuscations generated by globalized capital as it seeks our consent to its values, and who revealed to us its material basis in the day-to-day labor of those who are obliged to make it function. His major projects, such as Fish Story (1989-1995), Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes (1989), and Black Tide (2003), tracked these processes above all in the maritime industries that continue to be a key connector on a global scale between markets (concentrations of consumers) and producers (grossly underpaid workers). This enterprise culminated in his extraordinary film The Forgotten Space (2010), made with Noel Burch.  The website for the film includes a trailer that enables us to hear again Allan’s concerned, urgent but always gentle voice (

Warsaw,  14 August  2013


1 Comment

August 15, 2013 · 4:24 pm

One response to “Allan Sekula

  1. ewholland

    Very nice remembrance of a vitally important figure. Allan was a student at UC San Diego, of course, not the University of San Diego.

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