A ‘Very Modern Struggle’: Allan Sekula

December 3, 2013 § 4 Comments

In August of this year, the artist, activist, writer and educator Allan Sekula passed away following illness. The subject matter of the majority of his project work was framed by the relationship between capital and labour. The following is a reflection on his project, Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool).

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

One thing that struck me strongly in Liverpool and it was certainly present in some of the fiction I’d read was this sense of generational rupture and continuity within working class families. That the sea itself was a kind of thread of escape and becoming.*

In May 2003 at the Generali Foundation in Vienna, Austria, an installation opened with accompanying publication of the same name, Performance Under Working Conditions. This was the first major retrospective of the work by Allan Sekula. It is a section of this exhibition titled, Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool) which is the focus for my discussion to follow – embodying what I would identify as the working methods, re-presentational strategies and central themes addressed in his practice.

‘Our readings of past culture’, wrote Sekula, ‘are subject to the covert demands of the historical present’ (1978: 118). While addressing the re-invention of a documentary photographic practice which acknowledged its modernist underpinnings and role in ideological construction, Sekula was further critical of the role of art and photography in advanced capitalism and its commodification, becoming a ‘specialised colony of the monopoly of capitalist media’ (ibid.: 120). Nonetheless, having become familiar with critical documentary photographic practice, Sekula ascribed that there remained the potential, through a reflexive awareness, to usurp what he would define as the solely aesthetic distractions of modernist visual practices, thereby re-inscribing photography’s critical potentialities that remained.

In a similar vein and with reference to the agency of the image archive (which he defined as ‘elements in a unified symbolic economy’ (2003a: 450)), Sekula questioned the value of such sites due to their ‘depoliticisation of photographic meaning’ (ibid.: 444), where such meanings were ‘up for grabs’ (ibid.: 444). Significantly, these observations alert us to both the implications through the continued application of the photograph and the political potentialities within the meaning of photographs produced – potentials in specific critical contexts which produce meaning whilst simultaneously alerting us to the role of photographic representation and its functioning in the formation of ideological histories. These themes continued to define Sekula’s practice in the critical application of the still and moving image, illustrated further in relation to the archive and the function of context in the reading of the photograph. As Sekula wrote:

[It] is clear that photographic meaning depends largely on context. Despite the powerful impression of reality…photographs, in themselves, are fragmentary and incomplete utterances. Meaning is always directed by layout; captions, text, and site and mode of presentation…thus, since photographic archives tend to suspend meaning and use, within the archive meaning exists in a state that is both residual and potential. The suggestion of the past uses coexists with a plentitude of possibilities. (2003a: 445)

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

These defining characteristics, regarding the representation of the image archive and their construction in meaning, continued to define his representational strategies. We can now recognise such approaches as emblematic of late-modern photographic practice, ‘principally residing in its dismantling of reified, idealist conceptions enshrined in modernist aesthetics – issues devolving on presence, subjectivity, and aura’ (Solomon- Godeau 1999: 249).

With a continuing focus upon the high seas, his project, Freeway to China documented the changes resulting from globalisation in world ports and dockland areas, specifically Los Angeles, Sydney and Liverpool. While acknowledging the predatory impact of global capital,

Sekula identified the potential for solidarity between workers. As Zanny Begg observes, ‘the sea is embedded with the memory of earlier pre-industrial and industrial phases of capitalism which haunt Sekula’s critique of globalisation’ (2005). Economy had been a central theme for Sekula and in particular, the subject of the maritime, which he described as ‘an obsessive interest’ (1997: 59) since the 1980s:

First, ‘“the economy”’ is widely regarded as unrepresentable within the field of culture, its abstraction and complexity defy translation. Second, ‘“the economy”’ is not a fashionable topic, nor has it been one….[The] economy is culture’s imaginary bad object, even as culture in reality submits to market forces. (1997: 50)

Repeatedly, he addressed the seminal role of labour, proffering representational strategies primarily through the incorporation of text and image. In late 1999, Sekula was invited to participate in the Liverpool Biennale resulting in Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool).

Building on existing work produced in collaboration with the longshore men and women of the port of Los Angeles, he was struck by the historic and contemporary role of unionised labour in Liverpool’s docklands. Particularly, Sekula noted the immediacy of the ‘neglected two-year struggle against a mass sacking’, which he identified as embodying, ‘many of the key issues of the battle against neoliberalism and globalisation.’ (2003b: 278). Having been introduced to the Dockers and their families, Sekula befriended them and subsequently enlisted their assistance and complicity in the formulation of this piece of work. Besides the photographs produced, he wrote an extended piece of text which was published, and for the exhibition, images were presented alongside, anecdotal and descriptive passages:

[To] insist that language is an integral element of the work itself, and not a supplement, is to hope for an end to the institutional automatism of the bureaucratic hierarchy and division of labor that leads us from the ‘“visual”’ artist to the “verbal” critic. (1997: 58)

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

In the image above, Mason Davis, a welder in the port of Los Angeles, stares directly into the camera, somewhat passively yet somewhere else in his engagement, out towards the viewer and then beyond, somewhere. Sekula documented this moment and recalled how it was Mason’s ‘first job in a year’ and then embellished the encounter, recalling how when he returned to give him a copy of the photograph, Mason had moved on to New York in search of work. This image formed part of the installation at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. Sekula invited local photographer, Dave Sinclairto share the exhibition space as a means for ‘dialogue between, what he decribed as ‘my more “global” take on maritime struggles and his intimate and “local” engagement with Liverpool history and the fight as it unfolded’ (2003b: 278).

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003, photograph by Dave Sinclair

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003,
photograph by Dave Sinclair

Three women sit, engrossed, concerned (Image above), nails chewed – a black and white portrait. Below eye level, a glass is risen partially obscuring the right hand side near the viewer’s point of view. In the intimate and familiar surroundings of the local pub, the cultural meeting point, a place of exchange in this time of crisis – the latest news is awaited, possibly a decision that will shape futures, perhaps their own. The women portrayed display no awareness of the photographer, the image emblematic of a ‘documentary style’, their lack of awareness evidencing trust at this most pivotal of times. A counterpoint to the image of Mason, in format and style, however, struggles linked through a dependency concerning dockworker futures and how photography, critically has a role, albeit with caution, to bear witness.

‘But awareness of history’, Sekula observed, ‘as an interpretation of the past succumbs to a faith in history as a representation. The viewer is confronted, not by historical-writing, but by the appearance of history itself’ (original italics 2003a: 447). The constructed nature of such historical knowledge and photography’s role in its ideological grounding remained relevant throughout. Repeatedly, one is made aware not only of the subject matter of Sekula’s project work but of the critical reading of the media employed. Referencing the observation of Bertolt Brecht concerning the photographs of the Krupp Factory Works and how something must be ‘constructed’ (Sekula 1997), Sekula discussed its impact on the installation of his work:

In an exhibition space, of course, this requires more than the turning of pages, but an act of walking. Both allow the viewer to come to initial terms with the image without the benefit of the caption’s gesture of semantic anchorage. Thus also the overall picture sequence is afforded a certain visual autonomy. Overall my aim is to construct an open invitation for desultory movement between the photographically- produced text panels in black and white and the sequences of colour photographs: a kind of meandering voyage of reading and looking. (1997: 58)


Amidst the installation, Mickey Tighe and Marty Size gaze through upright rusting metal bars (image above), hands grasping, grasped – the images of them, the left part of a diptych. The image to the right is their view and now the viewers, looking out and beyond. Both have been replaced and so they, and the viewer look towards the site of their former employment, bars impeding, obscuring, an empty space and beyond and in the distance, the docklands of Liverpool. They note the workers presently employed, describing them as ‘scabs’ – non-unionised labour brought in to replace those who once worked there – Mickey asks, ‘Marty, isn’t that your machine?’

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

from Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool), Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2003

‘Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool)’, stated the accompanying press release, ‘reminds us both of the distance and proximity of space in the globalised world…and the physical necessity of transport and therefore labour’. However, as evidenced in the aforementioned exchange between the two dockworkers and their grammatical adoption of the possessive article, the project further and critically challenged any all- encompassing assumptions concerning a uniformity of the impact of globalisation:

The Liverpool dockers and their wives, their families insist that theirs has been a very “modern struggle”, refuting the smug neoliberal dismissal of dock labor as an atavistic throwback to an earlier mercantile age. Postmodernists, who fantasize a world of purely electronic and instantaneous contacts, blind to the slow movement of heavy and necessary things, may indeed find this insistence on mere modernity quaint….[But] against the pernicious idealist abstraction termed “globalism”, dockers enact an international solidarity based on intricate physical, intellectual, and above all social relationships to the flow of material goods. (Sekula 2003b: 297)

Sources quoted:
Begg, Z. (2005) ‘Photography and the Multitude: Recasting Subjectivity in a Globalised World’, Borderlands E-Journal, Volume 14, 1, <http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol4no1_2005/begg_art.htm> [Accessed 24 June 2009].
Sekula, A. (1978) ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (notes on the Politics of Representation)’ in (1999) Dismal Science, Photo Works 1972 – 1996, University Galleries of Illinois State University, Chicago, 118–138.
––––––––  (1997) ‘On “Fish Story”: The Coffin Learns to Dance’ in Camera Austria, Camera Austria, Graz, Issue 59/60, 49–59.
–––––––– (2003a) ‘Reading the Archive: Photography Between Labour and Capital’ in Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, Routledge, London, 443–452.
–––––––– (2003b) Allan Sekula: Performance Under Working Conditions, Wien: Generali Foundation & Hatje Cantz.
Solomon-Godeau, A (1999) ‘Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aestheticss’ in Squiers, C. (ed.) Overexposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography, The New Press, New York, pp. 247 – 268.

*From interview with Sekula on the occasion of the ‘Contemporary Documentary Exhibition’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, September 2002 to January 2003.

A version of this text was included as part of my practice-led doctorate thesis, the abstract of which can be viewed here.

ALLAN SEKULA 1951-2013

August 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Allan Sekula, Dear Bill Gates, 1999 (image by artist)

Allan Sekula, Dear Bill Gates, 1999 (image by artist)

An artist, writer and educator of great conviction, it is very sad to hear of the passing of the remarkable Allan Sekula.

Here are some links (here and here) to words and images in relation to an individual, whose relevance as a practitioner seems more significant as ever, particularly for dealing with subjects like labour, global capital and economy when, as he stated, ‘they weren’t sexy’.  He will be greatly missed.



‘Learning backwards’

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

A key concern of this project is the representation of labour. It is, therefore, critical to consider photographers and practitioners whom have sought to address such representations in meaningful, sustained and innovative ways. Known mainly for his images depicting the construction of the Empire State Building, here the specific reference is the early project work of Lewis Wickes Hine. Ground-breaking for its subject matter and the means and methods of representation that he engaged, this is further underlined in how the word, documentary, did not exist at this time in relation to the description of such visual undertakings.

Italian family looking for lost baggage, Ellis Island, 1905. Lewis Hine

In 1904, the teacher went to Ellis Island to witness the largest ever migration to the United States. Hine began making a series of immigrant portraits, which he would continue until 1930, later described as ‘incontrovertible documents of the human meaning of history’s greatest migration. The mass aspect of Ellis Island was left to the statisticians and social cartographers. Hine took care of the human equation’ (McClausland quoted in Rayner 1977: 42). Hine had met and befriended the wealthy businessman Arthur Kellogg, and through his patronage began documenting change for The Charities and Commons Magazine, later re-titled The Survey (Rayner 1977). He used photography ‘as a means to an end – to call attention to social injustice, to campaign for change and to celebrate the dignity of working people in the modern world’ (Panzer 2002: 3). He would devote his life to the portrayal of, among others, the plight of child labour, working conditions, the role of women, tenement living, veterans from the Civil War, disabled workers and the role of visible minorities. It is interesting to note how he circumvented issues concerning access to factories regarding child labour: ‘he pretended he was after pictures of machines…while one hand in his pocket made notes on ages and estimated sizes’ (Trachtenberg 1989: 201).

Field report, 1909, Lewis Hine (U.S. Library of Congress)

In this report (image above), one of 30 such documents in the U.S. Library of Congress collection, submitted with accompanying photographs to the National Child Labour Committee in 1909, Hine addresses the conditions of child labour in the Canning Industry in the American state of Maryland. Steeped in the observational and factual, anecdotal incidents are recounted as he encountered individuals working there, including the mother and widow, Mrs. Kawalski:

Many things has been misrepresented to her after they got there, she found that all the children, whose fare had been paid by the company, had to work all the time. The younger children worked some and went to school some, but they worked regularly as soon as they were able to stand up to the benches. “We lived xxx in rough shanties. It’s no place for children. They learn too much”. They had to furnish their own food and their fares were taken out of their earnings little by little. They didn’t get ahead any financially although it was a good year, at this place. “Call this slavery!” she said. (original delete marks, Hine 1909: 3)

Particular attention should be given to Hines’ subject position as manifest both in his working process and the framing technique employed. This relates primarily to a large part of what I would describe as his ‘early work’ from 1905 and up to, and including, 1920. Hine generally positioned his subject at eye level and in the centre of the frame. Whether individual or in groups, they presented themselves to the camera and the viewer. He maintained ‘careful notes’ of his encounters at all times and the work was usually accompanied by extended titles and captions (ibid.: 20). Hine was aware of the potential for allegory; ‘a picture is a symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality’ (Hine [1909] 1989: 207).

“December 3rd, 1908, A little Spinner in the Mollahon Mills, Newberry, S.C. Witness Sara R. Hine.” Lewis Hine

The Little Spinner is standing (image above). No more than 7 years of age, with hands by her side, there is a silence about her as she stares directly at the photographer, at the viewer. Hair barely combed, she is lost in size in the midst of the machinery surrounding her, all bolted to a floor spattered with traces of cotton. Her shoeless feet and little white smock dress are adorned with traces of the same cotton that is weaved web-like around her and her feet. She stares and we must return that stare for there is nowhere else to look, our perspective created by the row of machines denying us any escape. Her presence, our guilt? Our children, their futures? As we look at this young girl, certain histories and possibilities are posited, but nothing is complete and one now wonders the outcome of her fate. Hine demonstrates his understanding of the effectiveness of perspective in this instance. We as viewers are literally and visually forced to confront the human face of this unjust labouring situation. Aware of this potential, Hine coined the terms ‘social photography’ and ‘interpretive photography’ to ‘combine publicity and an appeal for public sympathy…to create a photograph often more effective than the reality would have been’ (Panzer 2002: 15). Here, simple in its presentation, the image exudes a subtle and silent quality amidst a scene which no doubt possessed harsh mechanical volumes. Hine himself noted:

She was tending her “sides” like a veteran, but after I took the photo, the overseer came up and said in an apologetic tone that was pathetic, “She just happened in”. Then a moment later he repeated the information. The mills appear to be full of youngsters that “just happened in”, or are “helping sister”. (Freedman & Hine 1998: 26)

Photography album, 1908, Lewis Hine

Alongside his meticulous note-taking and written documentation, Hine maintained albums of his edited photographs (see above) – numbered and assigned, specific to each location where the images had been made. What is significant also is the sophisticated dissemination of the vast amount of photographs Hine generated.

Poster, no date, Lewis Hine

Intended to affect public opinion and, thereby, government policy, there was a considered and critical mindfulness concerning the distributive possibilities of this visual material. For example, dedicated images surrounding narratives like this poster (image above) from Alabama addressing the plight of underage labour. While incorporating a sense of irony in the child now being the product, in turn it focuses attention on the fact that through/from the use of such child labour, factory owners could face the severest of penalties. The image below is what I would consider a key document from Hine’s work dating from 1907, ‘Night Scenes in The City of Brotherly Love’. Sponsored by Kodak, the pamphlet was published by the National Child Labour Committee.

‘Night Scenes in The City of Brotherly Love, 1907, Pamphlet, Lewis Hine (National Child Labour Committee)

There are ten sides to the document, nine of which contain portraits of young boys at work though the night of 4 November, 1906. Beginning with the first portraits of two boys at ‘EIGHT P.M’, the images continue along past ‘MIDNIGHT’ until ‘FOUR A.M.’, each portrait containing observational and anecdotal information collated by Hine. Made in Philadelphia at the beginning of the 20th Century, this significant document displays a sophisticated understanding of design, presenting us with an item which would easily fold up into something small and able to fit into a back pocket, a wallet or purse. In terms of dissemination and reaching an audience it is mobile, flexible and easily transported. Conceptually, ‘Night Scenes in the City of Brotherly Love’ is an evocative title for a document possessing nine portraits, most probably edited from a larger series of images, whereby these boys would, when refolded, return to face to face to one another, and rest upon one another. Hine highlights, with the assistance of the designer, the plight of these individuals, while simultaneously reminding the viewer that these young boys too belong to a community. As the artist and writer, Allan Sekula has commented of Hine’s work:

Lewis Hine is so exceptional, and so difficult to assimilate to models of early photographic modernism despite the modernity of his subject matter and the rigorous descriptive clarity of his style: he pursued strong aesthetic ends without losing sight of an ethical mission, or, to put it another way, he pursued an ethical mission without losing sight of strong aesthetic ends. (1997: 50)

In 1939, one year before his premature and impoverished death, the art historian, Elizabeth McClausland wrote about the significance of Hine’s role to photography:

To understand fully the magnitude of Hine’s achievement in documentary photography, one must understand not only the character of the man (his shyness and modesty which made it painfully difficult for him to force himself into factories, mills and slums where his photographic assignments took him) but also the fact that basically Hine did not know or care a great deal about technique. He learned photography backwards, as he frankly says. He took flashlights before he had ever taken a snapshot; he learned to make time exposures by going out and doing them. The modern scientific approach to the medium is completely alien to the Hine psyche. As said before, he blazed away; and by virtue of the sureness of his institution, and the single-minded directness of his objectives, he produced photographs of amazing beauty and powerful social content.(1974 [1939]: 18)

Sources quoted:
Freedman, R. & Hine, L. (1998) Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, New York: Sandpiper.
Hine, L. (1909) ‘Child Labor In The Canning Industry of Maryland’, United States Library of Congress, <http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/nclchtml/nclcreport.html&gt;.
McCausland, E. (1971) ‘Lewis Hine: Portfolio (review)’, Image, Vol. 14/1, 16.
Panzer, M. (2002) Lewis Hine, London: Phaidon.
Sekula, A. (1997) ‘On “Fish Story”: The Coffin Learns to Dance’ in Camera Austria, Camera Austria, Graz, Issue 59/60, 49–59.
Trachtenberg, A. (1989) Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans, New York: Hill & Wang.

A version of this text was included as part of my practice-led doctorate thesis, the abstract of which can be viewed here.


April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Based on the project Fish Story, by artist, writer and educator, Allan Sekula, his new film, The Forgotten Space, co-directed with Noël Burch, seeks ‘to understand and describe the contemporary maritime world in relation to the complex symbolic legacy of the sea’. Framed by the processes of globalisation, the sea represents, ‘slow time’:

from The Forgotten Space (still)

Once you start thinking transnationally, you’re led to the sea: the ship is the first great instrument of globalisation…you can observe the compression of time and space in the modern world from the decks of a containerised cargo vessel.

In his notes, Sekula continues:

Our film is about globalization and the sea, the “forgotten space” of our modernity. First and foremost, globalization is the penetration of the multinational corporate economy into every nook and cranny of human life…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.

A significance of the original project and now the film, is the insight it provides concerning the complex yet determining relationship between labour and capital in all its globalised settings.  The overarching context referenced in images from the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

from The Forgotten Space (still)

The film has received a degree of media attention as witnessed in a recent interview with Sekula titled, ‘Filming the forgotten resistance at sea’, by the Guardian Newspaper addressing the project and its reception and can be found here. While a roundtable discussion between Sekula, Burch along with the cultural geographer and Professor at City University of New York (CUNY), David Harvey and art historian and curator, Benjamin Buchloh, following a screening at Cooper Union in May, 2011, can be viewed here.

Ultimately, while the film makes visible another labour narrative and its integral significance in a modernity that perhaps could be overlooked or indeed forgotten, critically, according to the curator and writer, Jennifer Burris, it equally proposes:

Forms of material resistance that not only reintroduce the maritime world as a space forgotten within the hypertrophied narratives of electronic trading and consumption-driven economies, it also argues for an understanding of the current financial crisis not as an aberration of global capital, but as a pathology intrinsic to capitalism itself.

from The Forgotten Space (photograph by Allan Sekula)

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