ALLAN SEKULA (1951-2013) AND JEFF WALL (BORN 1946) REVOUTIONARY PHOTO-REALISTS WHO TRANSFORMED ARTISTIC PRACTICES IN THE LATTER HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY WITH STAGED PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTBOXES (WALL) AND DOCUMENTARY CRITICAL PHOTOGRAPHY (SEKULA): PART 1

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In the first part of my exploration into photo realism I will be concentrating on Allan Sekula writer, filmmaker theorist and critic. Steve Edwards a Marxist art critic captures perfectly the art of Allan Sekula .

” Photographer , filmmaker , cultural theorist and political activist Allan Sekula was one of the outstanding Marxist intellectuals of his generation”. [1].

Sekula himself wrote widely about the nature of representation. He shows how photography reflects the development of the real material world.

” Photography , reproduces the visible world, the camera is an engine of fact, the generator of a duplicate world of fetished appearances”. [2].

Further in his essay on his  notes on the politics of representation he says  “Documentary photography has amassed mountains of evidence and yet in in this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic fat the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle , to voyeurism , to terror envy and nostalgia and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world”.[3].

Unlike Jeff Wall who approached the discipline of photography from a different angle Sekula was concerned to apply a materialist definition and show this representation from a Marxist perspective.

” A political critique of the documentary genre is sorely needed- socially conscious American artists have much to learn from both the successes and the mistakes , compromises and collaboration of their progressive era and new deal predecessors “.[4].

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Sekula continues with his commentary on the politics of representation.

” But now television is an openly symbolist enterprise revolving entirely around the metamorphic poetry of the commodity -commodity culture”. [5].

In his criticism of post modernist art Sekula seeks to show that photography is not a high art to be sectioned off from the rest of society but in his Fish story folktales he portrays the world of work as a grinding exploitative part of modern global capitalism.

” I would like finally to discuss some alternative ways of working with photographs. A small number of contemporary photographers have set out deliberately to work against the strategies that have succeeded in making photography a high art”. [6].

I would include in this category contemporaries of Sekula like Victor Burgin and Martha Rosler.

” Their work begins with the recognition that photography is operative at every level of our culture .That they insist on treating photographs not as a privileged objects but as common cultural arti facts”[7].

” I am not talking about photo essays a cliché ridden form that is the non commercial counterpart to the photographic advertisement”. [8].

Commenting on the role of Martha Rosler who in the ‘The Bowery’ shows the poor and the working class and her art , her photographic record is a reflection not of high art but of socially driven art exposing  how the poor and the working class live in todays Capitalist society.

” The pool of language that Rosler has tapped is largely the socio linguistic property of the working class and the poor”. [9].

Sekula shows how artists like Rosler and Burgin go beyond just taking photographs as such but shows them as part of a socially conscious art using texts drawings and comments together with the photographic record.

“These artists on the other hand openly bracket their photographs with language using texts to anchor ,contradict ,reinforce ,subvert complement particularize go beyond the meanings offered by the images themselves”. [10].

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Steve Edwards in his essay on Sekula’s aerospace folktales shows how Sekula by documenting in a series of photographs how workers working in the shipbuilding industry operate , a documented version of what their day consists of, unlike the post Modernist who has no concern for documentary realism.

” This work is made up of a series of black and white photographs and texts documenting the lives of an un employed aerospace engineer , his wife and children“. [11].

Sekula is concerned also to contrast domestic work with actual work.

” Aerospace Folktales marks a shift away from classic still photography”. [12].

As Edwards comments the documents and the pictures are two forms of realism.

” Allan Sekula has produced a body of work that continues to engage with the traditions of the document while Jeff Wall has created complex staged images”. [13]. I will discuss this aspect of wall’s work in part 2 of my article.

Edwards begins to show in his essay that there is a distinction between Documents and pictures and through the work of artists like Sekula , Burgin and Rosler photographic  documents play a prominent role in society.

” As we have seen Sekula’s response initially involved attempting to revitalise documentary photography through mixing forms and Media”. [14].

The Fish story was another of Sekula’s documentary records . I have given some images of how Sekula recorded and photographed the images and his purpose in photographing workers and Dockers in a containerised environment.

” Sekula’s  fish story which he developed over 6 years  (1987-95) to document the maritime economy”. [15].

” The photographs record unemployment and dilapidation in the old Industrial powers”. [16].

” 105 colour photographs show the capitalist pursuit of cheap labour around the globe”.[17].

The way that  Sekula presents his view of globalisation shows that Sekula is presenting through these images a critique of Capitalist society from a Marxist standpoint.

Edwards confirms this approach . ” Fish Story is a significant project of documentation and important contribution to the critique of globalisation”. [18].

” It also suggests that modern maritime Labour is a form of wage slavery “. [19].

This was very much the conclusion that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels came to when they both wrote the Communist Manifesto. There is no doubt that Allan Sekula through his use of Documentary photography has made an important contribution to Marxism showing the role of Globalisation and confirming Lenin’s prognosis that ‘Imperialism was the highest stage of Capitalism. In part 2 I will consider the contribution of Jeff Wall.

FOOTNOTES

  1. http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/obituary/socialism-and-the-sea
  2. ART OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY NOTES ON THE POLITICS OF REPRESENTATION .ALLAN SEKULA PG.140
  3. DITTO PG 141
  4. DITTO PG 141
  5. DITTO PG 143
  6. DITTO PG 143
  7. DITTO PG 143
  8. DITTO PG 145
  9. DITTO PG 145
  10. DITTO PG 145
  11. THEMES IN CONTEMPORARY ART PHOTOGRAPHY AND CONCEPTUAL ART STEVE EDWARDS PG 150
  12. DITTO PG 151
  13. DITTO PG 159
  14. DITTO PG 159
  15. DITTO PG 169
  16. DITTO PG 169
  17. DITTO PG 170
  18. DITTO PG 171
  19. DITTO PG 171

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