PRINT January 2014


Allan Sekula

Noël Burch and Allan Sekula, The Forgotten Space, 2010, digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 110 minutes. Photo: Doc Eye Films.

A TRUE UNDERSTANDING of the tragic early loss of Allan Sekula may emerge only slowly in American culture, but it will steadily expand beyond the relatively limited circles in which his work has until now been recognized. He will be celebrated as an artist, first of all, and as a photographer and one of the most important critics, historians, and theoreticians of photography of the final decades of the twentieth century. (His 1986 essay “The Body and the Archive” is on par with Siegfried Kracauer’s foundational “Die Photographie,” which, although written nearly sixty years earlier in a profoundly different cultural context, was crucial to Sekula’s formation.) Then, he will be lauded as a filmmaker, for his extraordinary 2010 documentary The Forgotten Space, perhaps his greatest accomplishment, conceived and produced in collaboration with Noël Burch; lastly—and perhaps most important to him—he will be remembered as an activist and public intellectual.

If we understand why Sekula’s work had been largely ignored if not excluded, almost up to his death, by those institutions that supposedly represent American visual culture (i.e., museums, alternative spaces, and galleries), we have once more come up against the increasingly limited purview of our official cultural system—a system that may indeed no longer merit the generous imputation of “repressive tolerance,” a term coined by Herbert Marcuse, who was one of Sekula’s early philosophical teachers. The very criteria of this exclusion give us an astonishing insight, underscoring the fact that total depoliticization appears to be the precondition of cultural recognition (as Hans Haacke, another figure formative in Sekula’s education as an artist, could attest). Bertolt Brecht as a writer in Hollywood in the 1940s and Sekula as an artist in the American art world at the turn of the twenty-first century might well lend themselves for comparison.

It is hardly surprising that Sekula’s photographic practices generated such an intense hostility of indifference. After all, one experienced a reciprocal response from him—even, or particularly, as a friend—if one was, and remained, deeply attached to the histories of painting and sculpture or even to Conceptualist practices that, beginning in the late 1960s, foregrounded the linguistic status of the work of art. For Sekula, the historical transition from painting, sculpture, and Conceptualism to photography as a social production of representation and critical reflection was not merely a shift of media or genres that would eventually replace painting by adopting its own obsolete means of figuration and narrative. Rather, this transition defined one of the most crucial dimensions of his radicality as an artist (in the same manner in which photography as a deeply antipictorial project in the context of the Soviet and the Surrealist avant-gardes had once transformed advanced critical culture in the mid-1920s).

For one of his very first works, Gallery Voice Montage, 1970, Sekula recorded the commentaries voiced by spectators in front of paintings by Andy Warhol; he then played back these dialogic responses, through speakers installed in two white monochrome canvases, verifying what or whether anything was actually popular in Pop art. Meat Mass, 1972, another early work, no less cruel in its clear-sighted analysis of things to come, was a performance in which the artist redistributed high-priced steaks, illicitly acquired from a supermarket, by throwing them onto the San Diego Freeway, the monstrous meats inevitably to be flattened by the endless stream of cars and trucks. What must have appeared at the time as an utterly implausible mapping of unrelated elements (LA traffic and meat consumption) in an enigmatic performance reads now, with forty years’ hindsight, as an uncanny literalization, alerting us to the deep connection between ecological destruction and socially enforced compulsive consumption.

Early on, Sekula was profoundly knowledgeable about the photographic practices and debates of the 1920s and ’30s (during which Kracauer had called photography the “go for broke—va banque—game of history”), whether Farm Security Administration documentary or John Heartfield’s photomontages, the factographic photography of the Soviet Union or August Sander’s long-term project Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century), 1910–1950s. (Sekula often mentioned Sander and had planned to devote a monographic essay to his work, which now, unfortunately, we will never read.) While Sekula was well aware that the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s had irrevocably transformed the historical dialectics at stake in the recovery of this material, the artist—like photography’s critics and practitioners of the ’20s and ’30s—aimed to reinstate the medium’s centrality in critically reflecting and representing the conditions of collective experience in the remnants of the bourgeois public sphere.

If such political commitments distanced Sekula, as we have seen, from the Minimalist painters, sculptors, and language-based Conceptualists ascendant in the years of his artistic apprenticeship, no less of a gap separated him from those Los Angeles artists such as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Douglas Huebler who, after Warhol’s impact, had returned the photographic medium to artistic, if not yet to critical or political, reflection. And what distinguished Sekula’s aesthetic from those of his now-famous artistic peers in the mid- to late-1970s moment of post-Conceptual photographic practices (say, Cindy Sherman’s or Jeff Wall’s) was first of all his desire to reconstruct photography’s dialectical tension between discursive and documentary dimensions. His resolve to resurrect photography’s historically innate referentiality not only ran counter to all the rules that had been formulated in the ’60s by both poststructuralist (e.g., Roland Barthes) and post-Duchampian (e.g., Conceptual photography, Pictures) projects but also brushed “photography against the grain,” the Benjaminian title Sekula gave to his first book of writings and works, published in 1984 by the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Given Sekula’s allegiance to photography’s inextricable and inescapable referential functions, be they historically overdetermined or semiologically or phenomenologically grounded, it is unsurprising that one of his very first photographic works, Aerospace Folktales, 1973, concerned labor and the family structure, precisely the two most unacceptable spheres of everyday life in terms of artistic representation—ones that had been almost phobically avoided throughout the history of twentieth-century modernism. After all, what could possibly have been less appealing to the art-world audience of the ’70s—at the very moment of art’s seemingly radical detachment from all referential functions (think of Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of the “floating signifier” and its Pop art reverberations, for example)—than an artist telling us the story of his father being laid off from his job at a major military industrial conglomerate in Southern California and the resulting family crisis?

Referentiality itself, however, was always thought of by Sekula in dialectical terms. To reestablish and renegotiate photography’s bonds with material and social reality was both a promise and a plight, since it meant first of all to reconstruct photography’s initial project of producing visual evidence of the social processes within which subjects are formed, molded by class, labor, and education no less than by linguistic representations and perceptual genres and conventions (undoubtedly one of the reasons Sander remained of particular interest to the artist). Even when Sekula rethought photography’s initial promise to serve as a tool, and at times even as a weapon, of emancipation and self-constitution, reclaiming the agency and activism of social documentary, he always counteracted that utopian radicality with the realist’s pessimism of the intellect. In his incomparably precise analyses of what had come of photography’s originary Enlightenment claims (when writing on Oliver Wendell Holmes or Edward Steichen, for example), he reminded us that, from the very beginning, photography had provided as many new means of surveillance and seduction as it had representations of potential agency—if not more. Photography, like language—here was the lesson Sekula had learned from Foucault—was the very system within which subjects are both constituted and subjected to ideological control, typically in the service of economic exploitation.

That insight also served as a riposte to Conceptual- ism’s linguistic optimism, a countermove in which Sekula restituted material and social visuality to artistic production and representation; but rather than sell off large-scale photographs as quaint and compensatory pictorial stories, he imbued even photography’s precarious status with that of the dispositif, the mechanisms of ideological control, in a mode of critical self-reflection on which was founded his initially unlikely but increasingly deep friendship with the late Michael Asher, whom we lost not even a year before Sekula’s departure.

But despite his relentless self-questioning, Sekula’s optimism of the will remained true to his initial strategies, focusing on representations of labor and the labor of representation (with respect to the social collective as much as to his own role and place as an artist) as one of his central subjects, in which precarious self-constitution and enforced alienation are always dialectically at work. It seems that Sekula had understood early on that simulated détournement and the bliss and mess of free-floating signifiers had had their historical play and had lost the game; therefore, he refused to follow the directions that neoliberal capitalism gave to its cultural producers. Rather, he focused increasingly on the conditions of production under globalization, mostly concealed from, or disavowed by, those who enjoy the comforts of Westernized consumption. Sekula and Burch’s chef d’oeuvre, The Forgotten Space, reestablishes solidarity with those condemned to extreme forms of globalized alienated labor, a solidarity that documentary film and photography had always attempted to sustain. But it also irreversibly dismantles the delusions that artistic practices can still credibly claim to provide brief moments of compensatory reprieve or even amusement, let alone perceptual or cognitive enlightenment, unless they themselves engage the actual complexity with which ideological deception operates in the present and deconstruct capital’s monolithic myths with the attention to context and detail necessary to provide theoretical and critical illumination.

One of the last, and one of the most striking, photographs that I have seen by Sekula is a portrait of his aging mother, who died in her early nineties, a week after her son. Again, unthinkable as an image or a reflection in postwar visual (least of all photographic) culture, the portrait reminds us of the multiple motivations and tasks of critical realism and referentiality, in a history that ranges from Käthe Kollwitz to Aleksandr Rodchenko to Brecht and beyond. And it is out of that neglected tradition that Sekula’s early commitment to feminism arose, and from which evolved his increasingly passionate commitment to publicly record and criticize the collective indifference toward capitalism’s destruction of the environment.

We all owe Allan Sekula immensely and have a great deal of work to do (editorial, critical, historical, and artistic) if we are to honor his spirit and courage and extend his activist legacies into the present—and into an otherwise ever-darkening future of cultural futilities.

Allan Sekula died on August 10, 2013, at the age of sixty-two.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University.