The Traffic in Images
By Jonah Goldman KayMarch 29, 2021
Art Isn’t Fair by Allan Sekula
Sekula’s primary focus was on the representative power of the photograph and the contours of the medium’s documentary capabilities. He was interested in the way photography documented labor in particular, as well as in its capabilities to surveil and control its subjects. His writings, which spanned essays, reviews, and criticism, examined both how photography was used to enforce the existing social order and how its power could potentially be undermined. “Photography promises an enhanced mastery of nature, but photography also threatens conflagration and anarchy, an incendiary leveling of the existing cultural order,” Sekula wrote in “The Body and the Archive.”
His artistic practice both expanded upon and augmented those same interests. While he dabbled in a variety of mediums, Sekula consistently returned to documentary photography because of its ability to reveal both the nature of its subjects and the political and social signs that lay underneath. His essays, which are notoriously dense and discursive, often benefited from their visual illustrations, which served to develop the same concepts he discussed in writing.
To understand Sekula’s work, then, it is essential to view his photographs and his writing alongside each other. In Art Isn’t Fair, MACK’s third publication of Sekula’s writings, editors Sally Stein and Ina Steiner chose to work chronologically, integrating his photographic projects with his writing. The resulting product is an accessible document that delves into Sekula’s multifaceted body of work in a manner that likely would have pleased the artist himself.
As Sekula notes in his 2014 essay “An Eternal Esthetics of Laborious Gestures,” the photographic medium is “persistently haunted by the image of human labor.” Working through some of the best-known moments in the history of photography, Sekula identifies the persistent hand of the worker and the medium’s preoccupation with the individual. In Louis Daguerre’s 1838 image of his street in Paris, there is just one visible subject: a man having his shoes shined. This man, undoubtedly a member of the bourgeoisie, had the luxury to remain in place long enough to be captured by Daguerre’s rudimentary camera. The shoeblack, however, whose labor is consumed by the bourgeois, is a mere blur. To Sekula, the focus on the bourgeois subject establishes a precedent by which the photographic image is used to celebrate bourgeois consumption while masking the labor of those who produce commodities and services.
The irony of working in an industry that relies entirely upon bourgeois consumption was not lost on Sekula. He did not have to travel to far-flung ports to capture the transnational flow of capital — it was visible at every art institution he visited. In his 2012 video Art Isn’t Fair, Sekula examined the rise of art fairs and their role in the art market. It’s easy to see why art fairs would appeal to Sekula’s critical tendencies: they are centralized markets where capital takes the front seat and an artist’s work is relegated to the status of commodity. The friendly yet transactional banter between art dealers and buyers is not fundamentally different from the exchanges captured in Sekula’s 1995 book Fish Story, which examines the social structures of a major port. Whether art or fish, capital can transform an object into a good to be bought and sold.
Sekula’s middle-class upbringing proved foundational to his work. One of his earliest projects, produced while he was still an undergraduate student, was an autobiographical photo-essay. In it, the artist offers a quotidian narrative of a postwar nuclear family: on each slide, two photos — of Sekula’s neighborhood, his workplace, his family — are paired with several lines of handwritten text. In this piece, Sekula’s interest in class and labor emerge most clearly: two photos of houses in his hometown are paired with text explaining that his neighbors tended to drop out before high school, while his high school classmates went on to university. Other critiques are more subtle — a photo of his parents notes that his mother, a “housewife,” is employed, while his father, an aerospace engineer, is unemployed. It’s a small gesture — Sekula giving credence to his mother’s labor — but one that embodies his interest in the domestic sphere. As Benjamin Buchloh wrote in a 2014 essay, “Sekula confronts us with the space of the domestic, the seemingly petty and utterly unheroic, non-artistic details of an American middle-class family and all its accoutrements, banal and everyday.”
Indeed, Sekula’s small assertion of the validity of women’s work prefigures Martha Rosler’s focus on domestic spaces. Rosler and Sekula were highly attuned to one another’s work and often showed alongside each other in group exhibitions. Rosler was best known for her investigations of the quotidian, gendered spaces of the home. Like Sekula, she was interested in the social codes that underpinned our daily routines. In Semiotics of the Kitchen, her now-famous 1975 film, Rosler parodied the format and language of cooking shows as a means of exploring the gendered experience of the kitchen.
Sekula’s and Rosler’s shared interest in domestic space made them stand out amid the prevailing artistic sentiments of the 1970s. At the time, conceptualists dominated the scene, producing heady work that focused on the male-coded realm of commerce. These artists were preoccupied with corporate structures and the semiotics of advertisements, not the language of the everyday and the domestic.
Compare, for example, Jeff Wall’s meticulously produced photographs, which mimic the aesthetics and composition of a documentary image in order to investigate its constructed nature, with Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence (1972), which captures unsuspecting factory workers leaving the job after a long day. The people here are not posed — they’re captured candidly, mechanically, as they leave their work. Their expressions are confused and doubtful, questioning why someone would be documenting this banal event. The serial nature of the images mimics the workers’ own routine, the repetitive quality of their work and lives. Nonetheless, Sekula has managed to turn each individual into a heroic subject and, in so doing, has revealed the medium’s discursive abilities and the power it holds over its subjects.
Sekula also struggled with photography’s penchant for singular representation. He investigated this phenomenon in Waiting for Tear Gas (1999–2000), which was conceived as a form of “anti-photojournalism.” Frustrated with the journalistic tendency to create a singular defining image of an event, especially the “increasingly stereotypical descriptions of the new face of protest,” Sekula descended into a demonstration against the World Trade Organization in Seattle armed with a manual focus camera and a fixed lens. Embedded in the crowd, Sekula documented his subjects as if he were one of them, rather than a member of the press. Displayed as a looping series of images, no individual protester is given more credence than any other; rather, they are all depicted as part of a larger collective fighting against a growing wave of globalization.
As with his interest in the domestic sphere, Sekula’s uncynical focus on the daily life of the laborer was a marked divergence from many of his contemporaries. The transnational movement of capital — specifically the labor involved in that movement — was one of Sekula’s recurring interests. Fish Story, Sekula’s best-known work, examined the process of containerization and the physical movement of goods across the ocean via cargo ships. But Sekula also maintained his focus on the human condition, examining the circumstances of the workers and the ever-changing social dynamics of the ports they visited.
Sekula’s interest in the movement of goods, particularly the trafficking in images, proved remarkably prescient. In his 2002 essay “Between the Net and the Deep Blue Sea (Rethinking the Traffic in Photographs),” Sekula takes aim at the “faceless power” of tech kingpins like Bill Gates who, through his now-defunct Corbis agency, attempted to collect and license millions of famous images. Sekula notes that this project was inherently proprietary — Gates wanted to control not only the flow of information but also the rights to the images themselves. These issues have not dissipated in the two decades since Sekula’s essay was published; if anything, they’ve grown more urgent. As tech companies battle over their responsibilities and rights regarding the traffic of images on their platforms, Sekula’s concerns about the movement of images remain as relevant as ever.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!