Growing up in San Pedro, the immense port of Los Angeles, Sekula gravitated to the sea as a space of freedom and hard, sweaty work. As important, the contemporary maritime world was a site of rapid changes in modern technologies from traditional bulk holds to enormous container ships and accompanying cranes, which reduced much labor on the seas and in the ports while also greatly increasing global trade and outsourcing of manufacturing to sites of cheaper labor. Thus Sekula, grandson of a Pennsylvania railroad blacksmith, found himself wanting to redirect attention to this largely ignored field of work and commerce in the age of more glamorous air travel and high-speed global communication networks. An unashamed Marxist, he consistently invoked the centrality of the labor theory of value. Photography for Sekula was haunted by both human labor and the hegemonic disregard for such agency and transaction from below.
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Steve Edwards Steve Edwards Allan Sekula: Fish Story Emergence in conditions of emergency Allan Sekula, who sadly died in , was for almost forty years a towering figure of the intellectual and cultural left. Photographer, theorist, filmmaker and activist, Sekula pro- duced his first significant works in the s, as a student at the University of Califor- nia, San Diego.
Initially performing art actions, like his immediate circle, he was drawn to photography. I began to think that it might be possible to photograph everyday life — leaving a factory or housework — as if it were a perfor- mance. Somewhere between conscious comportment towards the camera and bad acting, the characters populate stories drawn from experi- ence.
Reassessing the situation led him back to documentary, albeit in expanded and reworked form. The first major result of the new approach was Fish Story. From various parts and iterations of the work were exhibited and, in , Fish Story was exhibited in Rotterdam and published as a book. From that date, a series of large exhibitions followed in Glasgow, Stockholm and Calais. In book form, Fish Story includes ninety-six colour photographs and extended cap- tions interleaved with pages of introductory text, short quotations and jokes.
American president Lines terminal. Los Angeles harbor. San Pedro, California, November with twenty-three black-and-white illustrations historical paintings, photographs, dia- grams, cartoons, film stills and so forth.
The exhibition consists of one-hundred and five colour photographs, twenty- six text panels, and two slide sequences each consisting of eighty transparencies, which are usually displayed in a separate booth or room. Captions for the slides, and an ac- companying text, are presented in a booklet. The images were made over a period of six years in a wide range of locations: five U.
The im- ages are just as varied in kind, and include portraits and idyllic landscapes; panoramas and details. There are pictures of model ships and things that resemble boats or fish. Welding, smelting, cut- ting and grinding all feature. There are photographs of cranes, trains, lorries and boats of all sorts.
Steel boxes are everywhere. What connects all this is the proximity of the sea. November works of visual art at end of the twenti- eth century?
It asks us to pay attention to lives that we have ignored. Fish Story is exemplary in this regard, with its cast of seafarers, wharf scavengers, long-shore workers, union organisers and so on. Mid-Atlantic However, the point is broader than this. Today many artists and critics are again engaged with themes highlighted in the cri- tique of political economy, so it is worth recalling that in the mids many commen- tators insisted that we lived in a post-industrial, or even, post-capitalist society.
Atten- tion turned from political economy and the labour process to consumption, simulacra, and the knowledge economy.
Anyone who has seen the vast European orange-juice terminal in Rotterdam, or taken a harbour tour, will have seen the enormous hinterland of depots and bulk cargo involved in this international trade. This is not an economy of instantaneity and speed, but a world created by heavy, slow and laborious work.
The point is that this is a diptych; the romantic panorama is qualified by the inclinome- ter. Allan Sekula: Fish Story 5 Fig. Mid-Atlantic In many ways, the central character in Fish Story is a box. The metal cargo container, which was introduced in the USA during the s, made intermodal transport a reality.
Cargo boxes are moved, pre-loaded, by crane from trucks onto ships and then trans- ferred to other lorries at their destination. The cargo container, not the internet, provides the technological nucleus of contemporary capitalist globalisation. Cargo contain- ers broke the control of organised labour over the loading and unloading of vessels and speeded up circulation time, but achieving this transformation required vast tracts of land for storage of boxes, trailers and lorries.
Sekula teaches us that this is to turn our world upside down or inside out. Ilsan fishing village My argument is that documentary and class are closely entwined and that the scepti- cism Sekula identified with regard to documentary, applies to both terms. Periods when social class has been at the heart of public debate have produced strong documentary movements.
The s and s provide the high points for the practice. Witnessing was somehow seen as complicit with authority and domination. It was a strange time. John Tagg was undoubtedly right to point out that not all representations of labour are equivalent and that many histories and exhibitions had mixed a melange of images produced for diverse purposes into a humanist mush. The intellectual abandonment of documentary, turning our gaze away from class and capital, played a key role in gener- ating a fog of invisibility over central political realities.
There are many that preferred it that way. No Caption Needed is only one of a spate of recent books that focus on photography as ethical witnessing.
The point is that the abandonment of docu- mentary was the form the retreat from class took in photography and film ; it amplified that flight, removing important conditions for dialogic struggle. Might we not see a deeper connection between post-politics and the dismissal of documentary; might not the cou- plet be rooted in the same fear of social reality or hatred of democracy?
The antipathy to documentary has declined markedly in recent times. Over the last ten years there has been a revival of intellectual interest in the documentary tradition, primarily associated with the circuit of art galleries and biennials. Some have noted that the shift is directly linked to the neo-liberal transformation of public broadcasting. No one now seems interested in large digitally-manipulated photographs and no one pays much attention to Jean Baudrillard.
The impetus for this critical shift has obviously been economic crisis, the wars of intervention and violent regime change that are essential elements of the neolib- eral order.
Documentary is back, while being confined in the prison house of art. Fish Story was one point of beginning for the new documentary. It insists we look at the overlooked: manual labour, the heavy and dull graft that makes global trade possi- ble; the unfashionable nodes of global commerce; ports, ships, fishermen, seafarers and port workers.
We are asked to attend to their struggles in the hostile environments of the sea and neoliberal capitalism. Fish Story is an invitation to follow the connections and re-totalise a world of outsourced production, flag of convenience crews drawn from desperately poor populations, environmental disaster, and the struggles of daily life within that matrix. Our attention is drawn to Mike and Mary living rough among the containers in South Central LA; Kim Kyung-Seok, a fisherman who now works in a Hyundi subsidiary and the furnaces of the Kaiser steel works, being loaded on a ship to China.
Sekula works with a low-plane vision, attentive to everyday tragedies and unheroic resistance. He was well aware of the critique of doc- umentary realism he wrote some of the best critical accounts of humanist documentary photography , so if he draws on the classic photo-story, it is to expand, explode or re- compose it. The power of the photo-story comes from a systematic presentation of a subject and the combination of pictures and words.
The most interesting current work on documentary un- derstands that the practice is not an alternative to modernism, but part of its submerged, history. There is definitely an additive structure to the work, but it is not at all seamless. Sekula knows that photo-realism has often claimed immedi- acy and a spurious organic unity and he sets about wrenching open the joins. Fish Story was one of the first, and probably the best, research driven artwork; yet to put it like this this is to position it too securely in art space.
The work and its spin-offs are regularly shown in art galleries, which, for the time being, provide an important funding base for critical documentary work. As much as an art- work, it is a history from below decks. In the s, second-wave political modernism offered a particular distilled version of the Benjamin-Brecht line. No doubt the contradictions and difficulties are unresolved, but the impetus to overcome cognitive blindness seems vital. Fish Story provides a method of plotting connection.
Perhaps, all of this is to say that Fish Story is that great white whale, a work of self- reflective, but militant documentary. A new critical documentary would then provide a cognitive map of contemporary global capitalism. Use values slide by in the chan- nel. Any reader of Marx will know that the form of presentation is central to volume 1 of Capital. New York London , p. Minneapolis Weir is one of 5 named individuals to whom Fish Story is dedicated.
See also: Sekula as note 4 , p. Basingstoke London and New York Chicago New York and Cambridge, Mass. In this regard, I also disagree with the argument recently advanced by John Roberts on indexical truth claims of photography. In and of itself, the photo-index cannot substantiate a truth claim; what it does do, as evidentiary mode, is pro- vide a nucleus for rival dialogic claims. Kassel , p. Ex cat. University Galleries, Illinois State Universi- ty, , p.
See also the special issue of the Oxford Art Journal vol. London Winchester Urbana and Chicago , pp. Allan Sekula: Fish Story 11 32 It has been little noted that in some regards, and probably unevenly, Sekula is a value-form theorist. See my introduction to the forthcoming Verso collection of his essays.
Fotografiska Museet Stockholm , Moderna Museet Stockholm , Nederlands Fotomuseum , Tramway Glasgow With the exhibition Fish Story, American artist Allan Sekula reconstructed a realist model of photographic representation, while taking a critical stance towards traditional documentary photography. Though there is a long artistic tradition of depicting harbors, ships and coastlines, few contemporary artists are continuing it. In Fish Story Sekula picked up this tradition, demonstrating the history and future of maritime space not only as a visual space but also as a socio-economic one. Fish Story was his third project in a related cycle of works that deal with the imaginary and actual geography of the advanced capitalistic world. A key issue in Fish Story is the connection between containerized cargo movement and the growing internationalization of the world industrial economy, with its effects on the actual social space of ports. Since its conception, Sekula sought to build the project cumulatively, exhibiting and publishing Fish Story as a work in progress. Fish Story also included two slide sequences of 80 projected slides each: Dismal Science and Walking on Water.
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Steve Edwards Steve Edwards Allan Sekula: Fish Story Emergence in conditions of emergency Allan Sekula, who sadly died in , was for almost forty years a towering figure of the intellectual and cultural left. Photographer, theorist, filmmaker and activist, Sekula pro- duced his first significant works in the s, as a student at the University of Califor- nia, San Diego. Initially performing art actions, like his immediate circle, he was drawn to photography. I began to think that it might be possible to photograph everyday life — leaving a factory or housework — as if it were a perfor- mance.