Allan Sekula, Against the Grain

Against the Current, No. 172, September/October 2014

Fred Lonidier

ALLAN SEKULA, “photographer ,film-maker,  cultural theorist and political activist (and) one of the outrstanding Marxist intellectuals of his generation,” died August 10, 2013 in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer. (See Steve Edwards, “Socialism and the Sea,” He was known among other things for his studies of the sea, which fascinated him from his years growing up in the port city of San Pedro, California.

We present here a reminiscence by his longtime friend and colleague Fred Lonidier, professor emeritus at the University of California-San Diego, whose work has focused on the application of photography in movements for social change. Lonidier is also an officer of UC/AFT Local 2034 there and a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. — The ATC editors

I GOT TO know Allan sometime in 1970 at the University of California San Diego, when he was a biology major taking writing and art classes and I had just been accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program. We were active in the antiwar movement both on campus and in San Diego. Both of us had an intense interest in documentary photography, with a sharp critical reaction to the Farm Security Administration photography and its photojournalist conventions.

Our first work together was a “body bag” artwork performance that he, along with students and faculty, constructed and installed in the main campus plaza. He alerted me so I could take photos of the process and installation. That was during the 1970 spring quarter when the campus was shut down during an anti-Vietnam war strike.

Our relationship deepened once I was hired, in the fall of 1972, as a half-time lecturer (along with Phil Steinmetz) to start and run the art department’s photo program. By that time, Allan was in the MFA program. A loose group of undergraduate and graduate students formed and over the next five years we got together for criticisms of work we were making, reading, discussing and just hanging out.

It was out of this mix that a number of us developed our own alternatives to traditional documentary. For us, Conceptual Art with its commitment to marrying art and language was our significant art movement.

Precociously, Sekula developed what is now a classic left theoretical argument for our emerging practices. In “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary” (Notes on the Politics of Representation), he not only explained this argument but also illustrated it with examples of his works and a few others, including one of mine. At issue was the single, dramatic photo convention with captions versus an installation or book approach that opened up the use of multiple photos, graphics and, most significantly, texts.

Conceptualism was brought to us by the art faculty hired at UCSD from New York, principally David Antin. It shifted the concerns of vanguard high art away from the ocular to the concepts underlying all human communication, principally by way of language. Like all the art movements since Romanticism, it was directed backward against previous “schools,” the most recent being Minimalism and Pop Art.

Texts and other ploys were used to foreground art ideas and it brought artists directly into the practices of criticism and art history. Though we at UCSD were already well into conceptual strategies when we “discovered” Hans Haacke, we identified one of the leading contemporary artists as a mentor and colleague.

We were adamant that our photos not float free of the context provided by their juxtapositions and the grounding of meaning by language. But we were also aware of, and interested in, acknowledging the problematics of representation, or as Allan called it, “critical realism.” We moved against the division of labor between photographer and writer (and/or quoter). All photographs dealt in some way with social class and/or gender.

Depending on how one regards postmodernism, Conceptualism was the last paradigm of Modernism; now there are no new dominant schools, just careers.

Artistry and Work

UCSD was a new campus and already noted for a few of its faculty on the left. Herbert Marcuse, Fredric Jameson and Herbert Schiller were major influences on us. But only Allan and another of our “group,” Martha Rosler, were really part of a loose collective of mostly literature grads who met with these leading intellectual lights. These two were by far the most literate among us, capable of writing and then publishing at a professional level.

Both Allan and I joined the New American Movement but when it merged with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form the Democratic Socialists of America, he moved on to Solidarity. (He dropped out of Solidarity in 2000.)

During his two MFA years, Allan produced two photo/text installation artworks.  First came “Aerospace Folktales” which included a video tape. It represented the problems facing his family when his father was laid off as an aerospace engineer. Given the massive layoffs in this war-bloated industry, what change in consciousness might come from finding it hard to secure comparable work when he had seemed so secure until then?

For his final MFA degree exhibition, Allan produced “This Ain’t China,” documenting with much slacker humor the struggles he and his fellow workers had doing kitchen labor at a pizza parlor. For the thesis part of the degree, he wrote “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” later revised and published in Artforum.
Allan was about showing the beauty of working people doing their everyday work, revealing their social relations and offering a critique that opened space to imagine other possibilities. In 1976 he wrote:

“I’m talking about a representational art, an art that refers to something beyond itself. Form and mannerism are not ends in themselves. These works might be about any number of things, ranging from the material and ideological space of the ‘self’ to the dominant social realities of corporate spectacle and corporate power. The initial questions are these: ‘How do we invent our lives out of a limited range of possibilities, and how are our lives invented for us by those in power? If these questions are asked only within the institutional boundaries of elite culture, only with the “art world,” then the answers will be merely academic. Given a certain poverty of means, this art aims toward a wider audience, and toward considerations of concrete social transformation.’” (“Documentary and Corporate Violence,” 1976)

Exploring Alternatives

In short order, our group began to connect up with others exploring photo alternatives with a conceptualist framework. We met at the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) around 1980. Though its members were somewhat divided between view-camera landscape and traditional documentary, we arrived like a force of nature into a field burdened by its second-class status in the arts.

We were the “political” Marxist and feminist newcomers, speaking, reading and writing in an alien manner but already with serious art world credentials. In short, I think I can claim that SPE was never the same.

Around the same time we joined the Caucus for Marxism and Art, which had obtained official standing at the College Art Association. Here we were in the academic big time, welcomed by the Caucus, and received with at least a certain curiosity.

By this time, Allan had also published “The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War” in Artforum; “Dismantling Modernism…” had been published and reprinted elsewhere. In his mid-20s, he was already a major photo historian/theorist/photo artist.

While still in San Diego, Allan got some part-time photo gigs at Orange Coast Community College. “School As A Factory,” his photo text piece about the tracking of working-class college students into the lower ranks of semi-skilled corporate workforce, was critically based on that first-hand experience in the less hallowed halls of community college education.

In the early 1980s, he taught first at New York University and then at Ohio State University, after which he returned to southern California in 1985 to join the art faculty of Cal Arts in Valencia (now Santa Clarita), in one of the burgeoning suburbs north of Los Angeles. He taught photography and critical theory there for nearly three decades until a serious diagnosis of stomach cancer required him to take a leave. Hospitalized after suffering a massive hemorrhage, he died on August 10, 2013.

Allan Sekula’s art “career” exploded over the years, and perhaps is adequately summarized by the write up when he received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art, from the College Art Association in 2012:

“Allan Sekula has devoted his life as an artist to writing, photography, installation, and video. While his multidisciplinary approach to problems of representation and politics has earned him accolades as an artist, his writings have helped students, scholars, and the public to think critically about interventions in the political and social realities of our world. The essays collected in his first book, Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973-83 (1984), significantly altered the way in which the documentary function of photography was conceptualized. His more recent volumes — such as Fish Story (1995), Titanic’s Wake (2003), and Performance under Working Conditions (2003) mobilize us through his vision and words to carefully consider the effects of capitalism, globalization, information formats, and the dematerialization of image and word.”

I want to mention one exhibition that for me stands out from the rest.  When “Fish Story” was shown at the Henry Gallery in Seattle, he worked extensively with the maritime unions there to bring in a union audience. To my knowledge, there is no published account of this and I only know about it from him.

Sekula was married to Sally Stein, a photography historian who taught at the University of California, Irvine, for more than 30 years. She is currently overseeing the completion of two of his unfinished books.

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Allan grew up in San Pedro and often referred to his origins in his work. The maritime world is a frequent character as he investigates and critiques the global chain of late capitalism. His film essay, “The Forgotten Space,” was a collaboration with Noël Burch.

Premiered at the 2010 Venice International Film Festival, the film inves­ti­gates the harbors of Los Angeles, Rotter­dam, Bilbao and Hong Kong to trace capitalism’s tentacles and the invisible lives of the people who produce the commodities and transport them by train, truck and cargo ships stacked high with containers. (See

Unfortunately the New Left, unlike the left of the 1920s and ’30s, has not at all taken high art seriously. Given the magnitude of Sekula’s contribution, as well as a host of other artists, critics, historians over the last several decades, one can only note here the wide cultural gap between the vibrant cultural practices of value to the New Left and what’s often the art world corral of our work.

The New Left largely broke with political parties and the unions; a youth movement rose up with civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War with a great diversity of cultural inputs from folk music, jazz, then sex, drugs and rock and roll.

By the early 1970s, artists within the high art world were making and showing “political” art on, at least, the margins of the field — but the divide with movements for social change largely exists to this day. One reason this could happen is that an academic art world exploded with the growth of higher education; faculty artists with a good exhibition record could get tenure without having a gallery or being collected at all.

For those of us in the Conceptual tradition, we “reinvented” documentary photographers and never “privileged” photography. Within our artworks and speaking/writing we indicated its problematic character as is the case with all human communication.

At the memorial for Allan Sekula organized by California Institute of the Arts in October 2013, students and colleagues testified to the intelligence, generosity, humor and commitment in all Allan Sekula touched and did. Some excerpts of his works and his curriculum vitae are on the Christopher Grimes Gallery:

September/October 2014, ATC 172