Allan Sekula: Labor’s Persistence @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 photographic works in color and black-and-white exhibited on light gray walls in the northern and southern galleries. A few were made in the 1970s or the 2000s, with the bulk dated between 1996-1999. Several works incorporate texts. In addition, a carousel of 81 color slides plays in the smaller middle gallery. The breakdown is as follows:


  • This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, 1974, 29 silver gelatin prints, 10 color photographs, 5 booklets in English, 5 booklets in Chinese, 2 chairs, images sized roughly 23×29, 31×27, or 44×52 inches, booklets sized roughly 9×6 inches each
  • Dear Bill Gates, 1999, triptych of Cibachrome prints, typewritten letter, images sized roughly 27×102 inches, letter sized roughly 15×12 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • Untitled Slide Sequence, 1972/2011, 25 archival pigment prints. Images sized roughly 14×20 inches each. In an edition of 5+2AP
  • Dockers unloading shipload of frozen fish from Argentina from “Fish Story”, 1989- 1995, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 18×25 inches
  • Portrait of John Stanson, Museum Guard and Former Docker from “Freeway to China”, 1998-1999, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 17×21 inches, in an edition of 2
  • Assemblage made by coal dockworkers, Vancouver from “TITANIC’s wake”, 1998/2000, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 30×41 inches, in an edition of 2
  • Bo’sun driving the forward winch … from “Fish Story”, 1989-1995, diptych of Cibachrome prints, each sized roughly 26×66 inches, in an edition of 5
  • Blockade 1 from “Freeway to China”, 1998-1999, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 16×21 inches, in an edition of 3
  • Seamstress and Apprentice, SNCF Workshop from “TITANIC’s wake”, 1998/2000, diptych pf Cibachrome prints, each sized roughly 26×37 inches, in an edition of 3
  • Shipwreck and Worker, Istanbul from “TITANIC’s wake”, 1998/2000, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 40×55 inches, in an edition of 5+1AP
  • Engine room wiper’s ear protection from “Fish Story”, 1989-1995, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 20×25 inches
  • Koreatown, Los Angeles, 1992 from “Fish Story”, 1989-1995, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 40×29, in an edition of 5
  • Man sleeping under a eucalyptus tree, Embarcadero park, (SD) from “Fish Story”, 1989-1995,
    Cibachrome print, sized roughly 20×28 inches
  • Europa, 2011, chromogenic print, sized roughly 47×70 inches, in an edition of 2
  • Portrait of Kaela Economou, beaten by the Seattle police, 2 December 1999 from “TITANIC’S wake”, 1998/2000, Cibachrome print, sized roughly 28×39 inches


  • Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black], 1999-2000, slide projection plus wall text; 81 35mm slides in sequence; 10 sec. each projection interval; continuous projection 13 1/2 minutes total, in an edition of 5+1AP


  • Cannery, Sanzal from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Enlatadora de atún, Sanzal.], triptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 19×78 inches
  • Impounded Chinese immigrant-smuggling ship and abandoned Russian fishing boat, Ensenada from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Barco contrabandista (embargado) de inmigrantes chinos y pesquero ruso abandonado, Ensenada.], triptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 20×78 inches
  • “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Fábrica de contenedores de Hyundai y graffiti camionero, Tijuana.] diptych of Cibachrome prints, each sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • Twentieth Century Fox Set for Titanic, Popotla, Baja California from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Set de la Twentieth Century Fox papa El Titanic, Popotla, Baja California.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 27×68 inches
  • Carnival Cruise Lines ship departing Ensenada for Los Angeles from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Nave Holiday de la compañía Carnival Cruise Lines, zarpando de Ensenada para Los Angeles.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • Tuna cannery, Ensenada from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Enlatadora de atún, Ensenada.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, each sized roughly 27×38 inches
  • Twentieth Century Fox set for Titanic and mussel gatherers, Popotla from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997[Set de la Twentieth Century Fox papa El Titanic y recolectores de mejillones, Popotla.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • Coffin factory, Tijuana from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Fábrica de ataúdes, Tijuana.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • Throwing a line, Ensenada from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Lanzando la cuerda, Ensenada.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • Ensenada longshoremen loading luggage of passengers bussed in from SD to meet the Carnival Cruise ship Tropicale bound for Honolulu from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Estibadores de Ensenada cargando el equipaje de los pasajeros que llegaron de San Diego en autobuses para embarcar en la nave Tropicale de la compañía Carninval Cruise Lines, con rumbo a Honolulu.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • Lobbyist’s son at the Republican convention, San Diego; Scavenger at work during the Republican convention, San Diego from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Hijo de un defensor republicano durante la convención, San Diego; Basurero durante la convención republicana.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 28×38 inches each
  • Republican boat ride, San Diego from “Dead Letter Office”; “Free speech area” outside the Republican convention, San Diego from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996- 1997 [Recorrido en barco de republicanos, San Diego; “Zona de la Libertad de Palabra” frente a la convención repulicana, San Diego.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, each sized roughly 28×38 inches
  • Navy photographer and marines participating in amphibious landing exercise, Camp Pendleton from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Fotografo de la Marina y Marines durante un ejercicio de aterrizaje marítimo, Camp Pendleton.], diptych of Cibachrome prints., sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • ABC news crew covering the Republican convention, San Diego from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997 [Equipo de video de ABC News cubriendo la Convención Repulicana, San Diego.], diptych of Cibachrome prints, sized roughly 25×66 inches
  • Shipyard welder cutting steel for Hyundai truck chassis, Ensenada from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997
    [Soldador en los astilleros cortando acero para el chasis de una camioneta Hyundai, Ensenada.], Cibachrome print, sized roughly 28×38 inches
  • Metal-workers employed by a Hyundai subcontractor signing authorization papers for an independent union, Tijuana from “Dead Letter Office”, 1996-1997. [Obreros metalúrgicos empleados de una filial de Hyundai, firmando la autorización de un sindicato independiente, Tijuana.], Cibachrome print, sized roughly 28×38 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Allan Sekula (1951-2013) had two careers that he viewed as intertwined and inseparable. For most of his life, he was known primarily (at least on the East coast) as a trenchant critic of art and documentary photography, one with a Marxist orientation, whose platform was the theoretical essay, the lectern, and the classrooms of CalArts where he taught for more than 30 years. His early writings were collected in Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983, published in 1984 but long out of print. Two essays in the volume, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning” and “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation),” along with the later “The Body and the Archive” (1986) became classics and are still widely cited by academics.

His simultaneous career, as a photographer and filmmaker, was slower to bring him attention. Although he had been taking and making pictures as a Conceptual artist since the 1970s—his photo narratives formed the second half of Photography Against the Grain—international recognition of these activities came only in 2002, when the curator Okwui Enwezor featured the photo essay Fish Story and other works in Documenta XI. (Two chapters of this piece had previously appeared in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, as well.) In 2007, the curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack chose him again for Documenta. A collaboration on the film The Forgotten Space (2010), with the American director and left-wing theorist Noël Burch, brought further renown. Since his death, American and European museums have been exhibiting Sekula’s prints with some regularity.

This welcome survey at Marian Goodman, organized by Philipp Kaiser and Sally Stein, is billed as the largest Sekula exhibition ever mounted on the East coast. The MG gallery in London mounted a show similar in scope, titled Photography: A Wonderfully Inadequate Medium, earlier this year, featuring several excerpts from Fish Story that are mostly absent here. Both retrospectives have eliminated early Dadaist performances, such as Meat Mass (1972), in which he threw steaks stolen from a supermarket on to the San Diego Freeway, and instead concentrate on his attempts to revitalize documentary photography with what he called “critical realism.”

Three themes—extremes of wealth and poverty, the sea as a social and economic space, and the gathering millennial forces of globalism—unite works made over 35 years.

The first two pieces here reveal his background in performance and Conceptual practices. This Ain’t China: A Photonovel (1974) is a farcical comedy starring a group of young restaurant workers (including Sekula) that mixes text and staged photographs. Combining the left-wing politics of Jean-Luc Godard’s Maoist period (part of the reason for the China title) with the low-down working class scene of American movies like Car Wash (1976), the piece is based on Sekula’s own experience in threatening to unionize a lowly pizzeria in San Diego. The pretensions of the owner are mocked in an elaborate organizational chart designed to improve efficiency. Accompanying booklets mark some of his first attacks on the idea that photographs are neutral documents. He interviewed his fellow workers and wove their answers into the narrative: “everyone was satisfied that the first photograph constituted the truth and that the second was a clever piece of propaganda. and from that point on all the photos had a staged look. not because of a moral or aesthetic commitment to fiction but because it was no longer possible to photograph inside the boss’s kitchen nor was it possible to work there.”

Dear Bill Gates was made in 1999, a few years after the Microsoft co-founder became the richest person in the world. The piece consists of three photos taken at water level. The central one is a portrait of a Sekula’s goggled-head looking into the camera as he swims in Lake Washington, a few hundred yards from Gates’ 66,000 sq. ft. water-front mansion in Medina, WA. The left-hand photo shows the house illuminated on the shore; the right-hand photo includes the boat that apparently transported Sekula to the site. In a separate letter to the side of the triptych, Sekula asks mischievously about a recent Gates purchase of Winslow Homer’s Lost on the Grand Banks. “It’s a great painting,” writes the critic, “but speaking as a friend and fellow citizen, at $30 million you paid too much.” Sekula warns the technocrat that Homer’s poor fishermen will die “an ugly death” while punning on words like “the net.” The chasm between what it cost Sekula to perform his guerrilla action (a few hundred dollars, at most) and Gates’ colossal fortune is one of the takeaways. Another is the construction of hi-tech fortresses by the superrich in the ‘90s to wall themselves off from the public: Sekula writes in his letter to Gates that he worried about setting off the property’s underwater sensors.

The rest of the show is largely devoted to his longtime analysis of the broader maritime economy. Sekula grew up in San Pedro, the sprawling port of Los Angeles. His father worked in the aerospace industry before being laid off. During Sekula’s lifetime, the shipping business was transformed. As a child, he saw union men loading and unloading goods from coal-powered freighters. By the 1990s such tasks were performed by gargantuan remote-controlled cranes lifting truckloads of material on to immense container ships. By some estimates, at least 90% of the world’s commerce is shipped over water.

Sekula made it his mission to find a way to expose this economic reality, largely hidden from view by public or under-reported on by the media, and he chose photography as the means to do so. His work in the early ‘90s belonged to what the critic Hal Foster has called the art world’s “return of the real.” In his essays and teachings, Sekula was unhappy that postmodernism had done away with images of men and women engaged in physical labor. At the same time he had no sympathy for most forms of art documentary approved by museums, dismissing Diane Arbus as “essentially a mannerist artist” whose elevation “was a symptom of advanced capitalist society.” In his program of “critical realism” he attempted to thread a path between the two main accepted modes of contemporary documentary—cool, scientific objectivism (e.g. Lewis Baltz) and romantic, interior subjectivism (Robert Frank)—both of which he found dissatisfying.

The gallery has combined for the first time Untitled Slide Sequence, a group of portraits (surreptitiously shot in 1972) of aerospace workers leaving their shifts at General Dynamics in San Diego, with later portraits of workers from his series on the economy of the sea: Fish Story (1989-1995), Freeway to China (1998-1999), Titanic’s Wake (1998-2000), and Europa (2011.)

One of the peculiarities of Sekula’s projects on labor is that almost none of the people in his photographs is identified. This may be a function of practical difficulties—for instance, it was illegal for him to take the pictures of the aerospace workers and he was thrown out before he might have asked them their names. It is nonetheless slightly bizarre for a Marxist to reduce the workers in his pictures to their status as anonymous bodies, treating them with the same impersonality that he professes to decry in capitalism.

His distance from those he claims to want to represent is underlined by the one exception here: John Stanson, a former dock worker and now a security guard, whom he photographed on a balcony at the Tate Gallery in 1998-1999. Why should the only worker he bothers to give a name to be a middle-aged white man he met at an art world institution? Meanwhile, the brown-skinned seamstresses and luggage handlers feeding bags into the bellies of cruise ships and the Turkish man digging out a grounded freighter with a shovel are described only by their function within the world economic system.

The highly-wrought, witty, often poetic sentences in Sekula’s pieces often seem hard to reconcile with the flat, prosaic photographs that accompany them. He was much better at describing what he didn’t want his photographs to do than he was at achieving a truly thoughtful alternative. His wall text for the slide show Waiting for Tear Gas, for instance, enunciates his program “of anti-photo-journalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence.”

It is well and good to identify the clichés of photo-journalism and to steer clear of them if possible. But something more productive and illuminating should grow up in their place. Sekula’s dark and muddy snapshots of clashes between hunched demonstrators and baton-wielding police are, I’m afraid, clichés, too. (Far more rousing photographs of street protests could be seen in the group show at the South St. Seaport Museum in 2012 on the short-lived Occupy Wall St. movement.)

Sekula’s unguarded solidarity with the protesters is admirable. He wants his pictures to convey the risks they were taking—of being beaten and gassed and jailed. “Something very simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the city streets, against the abstraction of global capitalism.” By reducing the immensely complex issues around globalization to one of protesters putting their bodies in harm’s way, however, he sentimentalizes them, turning their rock-throwing into futile, if heroic gestures. When street protests are framed as a struggle against “the abstraction of global capitalism,” is there any doubt which side is destined to win?

In a posthumous tribute in Artforum, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh accurately described the “intense hostility of indifference” by art institutions to Sekula’s photographs while he was alive. Buchloh rather grandly compared his friend’s alienation from the mainstream to Bertolt Brecht’s exile in Hollywood during the 1940s.

The indifference among curators was grounded, it seems to me, in skepticism that Sekula’s photographs were accomplishing the job he had set himself—that of presenting with penetrating insight the destructive forces of global capitalism on laborers aboard ships and on the docks. Photography has never been effective at exposing the causes of things, only at showing some of the effects and superficialities.

What’s more, it’s not clear Sekula ever figured out how to wield a camera with daring or precision, as if he didn’t care about its spatial and graphic possibilities. (Did he ever try anything except 35 mm.?) His verbal skills and critical faculties were far more advanced than his visual acuity—not uncommon in a teacher and critic—and this body of knowledge not only did not serve to deepen his efforts but seems to have acted as a censorious hindrance. In documenting a coffin factory along the Mexico-U.S. border for the series Dead Letter Office (1996-1997), for example, the best formal solution he can come up with for his diptych is to put the coffin squarely in the center of the frame—twice. To convey the scale and the uniform monotony of the stacked decks on a container ship is no easy task for a photographer, one that Sekula did not complete except in the most elementary fashion.

It’s a safe bet that Sekula loathed the baroque religiosity of Sebastião Salgado’s depictions of suffering laborers around the world and so developed an undemonstrative approach that signaled to viewers he had a different purpose in mind for his series. Nonetheless, many other photographers—Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Dan Weiner, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander—have portrayed the lives of workers in industrial, agricultural, bureaucratic, and information economies without succumbing to hammy grandstanding. Their photographs can ignite pictorial sparks in the mind while Sekula’s are too often struck with wet matches.

In spite of these shortcoming, his projects were fueled by righteous anger, not careerism. They can challenge one’s basic assumptions. I can no longer visit a seaport or watch a container ship on the horizon without thinking of his work: he and Noël Burch own this subject for the time being. This Ain’t China is a brilliant and original combination of staged and documentary techniques, a comedy with knives. It should be a separate book (rather than just an essay in a collection) so that its jokes can be savored. Sekula cleared the ground for photographers to be political when that wasn’t generally OK in art schools. It is now. Visit the Marian Goodman Gallery to see what his over-reaching agenda did (and failed to do) and where it could lead.

Collector’s POV: The single works range from $10000 to $25000, the large installation pieces from $50000 to $250000. Sekula’s work has very little secondary market history in the past decade. Of the few lots that have sold at auction in that time, prices have ranged between roughly $2000 and $10000, but with so few data points to tabulate, that range may not be representative of the prices for his best work.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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