Allan Sekula: Making Waves

FT Weekend Magazine, March 9/10, 2019

In the early 1990s, with the internet still in its infancy, Bill Gates began to buy up many vast archives of historic photographs. Any image has the potential to be reused, and Gates was quick to realise that the internet would be the major portal and marketplace. Millions of prints and negatives were digitally scanned. As pure data, the new image files could be monetised via Gates’s licensing company, Corbis.  Whoever owned the most images owned the biggest chunk of visual culture. In his 1995 book The Road Ahead, Gates described the electronic screens commissioned for his new Seattle home. “If you’re a guest you’ll be able to call up on screens throughout the house almost any image you like – presidential portraits, reproductions of High Renaissance paintings, picture of sunsets, airplanes, skiers in the Andes, a rare French stamp, the Beatles in 1965.” He was also buying major paintings.

In 1999, the American artist and writer Allan Sekula photographed himself bobbing in the sea overlooked by the Gates home. He then typed him a letter drawing a parallel between Winslow Homer’s 1885 painting “Lost on the Grand Banks”, which depicts two fishermen in peril and had been purchased by Gates for a reported $30m in 1998, and Gates’s own relationship with the internet: “as for you, Bill, when you’re on the Net, are you lost? Or found?” Sekula posted it. Gates did not respond, but really it was an open letter.

For over four decades, until his death in 2013, Sekula was outspoken about the increasing concentration of global wealth and corporate power. The form of his polemics was always unconventional but it was never crude protest. Stark political analysis came with dark humour. Observational documentary photographs were mixed with performance for the camera.  He could be disarmingly succinct but also playful in the layering of meanings. That neat comparison of the sea and the internet – a fluid real space and a fluid virtual space – got to the heart of the global contradiction that was beginning to touch us all. How does the online world relate to the real world, and can we really distinguish them?

Sekula was prolific, with a stream of photos, slide shows, videos, essays and books.  He understood that unpredictable times require unpredictable responses. As our politics, economics and climate grow more volatile, his work seems increasingly relevant.  In his lifetime it was admired but not widely exhibited, and rarely collected by museums. Now there is great interest, and soon a major show is to open at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London.

As an artwork to be exhibited or published, Dear Bill Gates is a coda of sorts to Sekula’s magnum opus, Fish Story. Years in the making, that work is an exploration in images and words of the sea as the great forgotten space of globalisation. While Gates, Microsoft and Corbis symbolise the shiny, borderless economy of information, Fish Story is a reminder of harsh realities. Images traverse continents in milliseconds, but your clothes, food, cars and furniture are manufactured and must be transported. They come by container ship, stewarded across oceans by distant labourers we barely know exist.

In art and literature the sea is often romantic, heroic, full of yearning. That’s the surface appeal of Winslow Homer’s painting. Sekula wanted to remind Gates, and us, of the life of those fishermen. In truth, their sea was an alienating space of trade, danger and very hard grind. Today, with depletion of fish stocks, pollution and climate change added to its perils, it remains a formidably tough environment. To grasp what the sea really is, with its precarious migrant dinghies and blooming islands of plastic trash, is to understand the deep interconnection of us all, caught in the net.

Sekula lived in southern California, home of the global image factory but also a place of high-tech, aerospace and giant seaports.  Across his career he made work about it all, but Fish Story is where his interests came together. First published in 1995, it is now back in print. It will take you a long weekend to digest, but there is nothing else quite like it. Sekula explores the world’s industrial ports and harbours with his camera, and puts sequences of photographs in parallel with paragraphs of writing. Remarks on JMW Turner’s painted seascapes sit next to a discussion of Friedrich Engels’s account of an approach to London via the Thames estuary. A few pages later, Sekula is in the mid-Atlantic, photographing over the side of a giant container ship as its crew rescues a forlorn sailing boat. It’s a Winslow Homer but not as we know it. And Fish Story is a photo-essay but not as we know it.

The word “essay” derives from the French essayer, to try out. The essay form first emerged in the 16th century as an experimental, unruly kind of writing, in which new or unfamiliar thoughts could be given whatever kind of expression they required.  In principle the photo-essay should be just as free. It could be a book of global scope, or a group of selfies with a typed letter.  In practice, however, the photo-essay was taken up in the 1920s and 30s by mass media magazines such as the French Vu, the American Life and Look, and the British Picture Post. In those hands it was turned into a formulaic way of describing the world with eye-catching images and simple text.  Length, scope and form were standardised. Magazine photo-essays often addressed hardship and inequality but in sentimental or inadvertently beautiful ways that left the underlying status quo intact. “The subjective aspect of liberal aesthetics is compassion rather than collective struggle,” was Sekula’s withering verdict. “Pity, mediated by an appreciation of great art, supplants political understanding.” His own version of the photo-essay reconnected with those experimental and troublesome origins, while being grounded in a critical realism.

If the world is changing rapidly, then realism cannot rely on fixed methods of description. It too must be nimble. While realism endeavours to inform it must also shock, surprise and open up ways of imagining alternatives. Nothing mutates faster than global capital and in recent decades it has left us breathless, bereft of the tools to make sense of a world that is at once profoundly homogenising and utterly fragmented. Prescient and urgent, Allan Sekula often described his photo-essays as “disassembled movies”. They make perfect sense in a world that now feels like one.