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Unknown Waters: The Images of Allan Sekula’s Fish Story and our Wayward Conceptions of the Sea

By Gabriel Boudali.

Allan Sekula, Fish Story (MACK Books, 2018)

”What if we refuse that distinction, all too appealing it seems, between place (as meaningful, lived and everyday) and space (as what? The outside? The abstract? The meaningless?)
Doreen Massey, in For Space

On a first viewing of Allan Sekula’s photographs one is struck by their luminescence: cool-toned images that seem to give off a heated light. Whether it’s the deep blue of the sea, the indigo of a shipping container, or the soft shade of well-worn denim, the imagery of Fish Story forms a captivating narrative of the world of global trade, dissecting our imaginations and manipulations of the sea. The work illuminates an urgency around hotly relevant contemporary conditions of our relationship to oceans and the way their vastness shapes our societies. Sekula, whose project lasted for over a decade, navigates the complicated environs of a globalizing world and aims to show us the inherent awkwardness of the shipping industry’s containment of behemoth spaces. First presented in the early 1990s as a series of gallery installations, this critical work has now been brought into print by MACK Books.

When we look at photographs we see the way light plays on a scene, and bear witness to a moment distant from ourselves. Shadows and highlights force the eye to move. Situations are gleaned. But less often, when we see an image within the context of, say, the bizarre and brutalist structures of globalization, the eye strains to the edges, looking for more information. Which companies operate these vast fleets of cargo ships carrying our commodities across thousands of miles? What is it like to weld steel plate in a shipyard’s metal shop? Fortunately, Sekula provides a rich textual backdrop to his photographs in Fish Story. Like an exhibition catalogue, this book is part collection of academic and poetic texts written by the artist, and part photo essay exposing the hidden lives and spaces surrounding shipping ports. Each image carries the feeling and knowledge that the sea surrounding these spaces and individuals is vast, mysterious, and forever beguiling. Meandering through Sekula’s writing, a deeper portrait takes form, revealing the philosophical and logistical loci of global consumption. Fish Story is a foundational text for an inquiry into how the sea exists in our contemporary conceptions of the world, and how the spatial logic of the oceans has continued to act as a site of intense conflict, geopolitically, financially and artistically.

Sekula, who died in 2013, was a photographer, filmmaker and writer whose artistic investigations remained embedded in a social practice. He advanced the idea that artwork should make a statement—art for society’s sake. In Fish Story his portraiture shows the bitter realities of maritime working life, whether at sea, docked in a port, or existing on its margins. His images are momentary, stylistically in the tradition of street photography. They rarely seem staged, but there is a narrative consideration to the presentation. Many images are paired as diptychs, often showing a sequence of action, suggesting Sekula’s lingering gaze. The effect of looking through the work is similar to watching the sparks fly from grinding metal. Your eye becomes transfixed by the light, as you look on from a safe distance. One comes to respect the photographer, who has gotten close enough to his subjects to capture their heat.

Allan Sekula, ‘Cutting steel in the plate and sub-assembly shop. Hyundai shipyard.’ from the chapter Seventy in Seven (1993), in Fish Story(MACK, 2018).Courtesy of the Allan Sekula Estate and MACK.

In an interview for BOMB Magazine in 2005, Sekula discusses his curation of a show that deals directly with the planning, architecture, and power relations of Los Angeles. He articulates a notion that seems to define Los Angeles culture, and perhaps American culture-at-large: “the prosaic and often boring reality of the grimy present moment is always excused either by imagining a better future or an even worse one.” His assertion of this fact is a reaction against it, as is his work. His photographic work shows a presence that is rare in socially conscious practice. There is no self-aggrandizing vision of either a bitter or better future. The work lacks that photographic fallacy (as can be seen in the imagery of propaganda) where the image-taker seems to reveal their personal vision rather than a reality. There’s little fussiness in the photographs. While the portraits are more intimate, and therefore most compelling, there’s also a humorous element to the still-life scenes surrounding the people Sekula photographs.

Another memorable portrait in Fish Story is titled “Pancake,” a former shipyard sandblaster, scavenging copper from a waterfront scrapyard. Los Angeles harbor. Terminal Island, California. November 1992. The title alone sounds like a poetic dirge, but the image is far more impactful. Pancake, who looks too young to be scavenging, sits on the ground of the scrapyard. Tools stick out of the back pocket of cut-off denim shorts. Gloved hands hold onto a wrench. A baseball cap, worn backwards, holds dark hair away from the face, which reveals a faraway-looking visage in profile. The gaze is reminiscent of how one might look out into sea at an approaching storm, or longingly for somewhere else. There is a skillful amount of ambiguity in the portrait. But there is no impending doom, the “grimy present moment” is all there is to behold.

This image is a perfect example of the way Sekula seems to wander into space where no one else would venture. His images emerge from the shadowy work areas of the globalized, containerized world. The photographer’s gaze found in street photography often feels absent and subverted. A more cinematic quality accompanies Sekula’s images. In the Introduction to the MACK edition, Laleh Khalili says, “Sekula’s photographs have to be seen in a series…the seriality sometimes implies a narrative arc…Sekula is a storyteller par excellence.” It’s true, one shouldn’t expect any of the images collected in the book to stand alone. The pairing of the photographs with words is essential to the experience. Created before the current caption culture of mass image-sharing brought on by internet platforms like Instagram, there’s a familiar tone in some of the more playful, poetic digressions in Fish Story. In one literary bit, composed of four sections of prose poetry, Sekula adopts a less academic voice:

Space is transformed. The ocean floor is wired for sound. Fishing boats disappear in the Irish Sea, dragged to the bottom by submarines. Businessmen on airplanes read exciting novels about sonar. Waterfront brothels are demolished or remodeled as condominiums. Shipyards are converted into movie sets…Heavy metals accumulate in the silt. Busboys fight over scarce spoons in front of a plate-glass window overlooking the harbor. The backwater becomes a frontwater. Everyone wants a glimpse of the sea.

When he chooses to play as he does here, his poetry reads like imageless captions. As a viewer it’s common practice to reference the photographer’s eye, but Sekula also has a voice. Together with his images he tells stories of the changing world.

Allan Sekula, ‘Containers used to contain shifting sand dunes.’ from the chapter True Cross(1994), in Fish Story(MACK, 2018). Courtesy of the Allan Sekula Estate and MACK.

Another of Sekula’s portraits, Chinese dismantling crew being bussed to their motel at the end of the day shift. Kaiser Steel mill. California. December 1993. The informative title points to the shifting world economic landscape. In the photo two workers head towards a waiting bus, the remaining stragglers who perhaps finished some necessary final task before sundown. Sekula, with a sharp (and perhaps lucky) photographer’s eye, captures a ray of light cutting through the gaze of his subject who looks back towards the photographer as if to acknowledge the shadowy nature of this candid moment. The subject’s compatriots rest and wait on the idling school bus, the word school painted over leaving an awkward off-kilter sign, reading as one end of the balance opposite a giant steel scrap heap in the background. The photograph evokes so much knowledge, candor and foresight. The image does not hide the out-of-place presence of the image-taker. More than twenty years later, the image seems as if it could have been taken yesterday. Reviving Sekula’s work encourages us to reflect on the current state of the globalized world. The photographer wisely saw the modern relevance of the oceans and ports of entry, those gateways to other places and opportunities, the sites of dreams and despair.

Sekula died amidst one of the worst humanitarian migration crises of the modern era. One can only speculate how he might have chosen to engage with the reality of migrants perishing by the thousands as they journey across the Mediterranean fleeing conflict or pursuing economic liberation. But his work acts as pretext for understanding this current crisis. In The New Odyssey, inaugural Migration correspondent for the Guardian Patrick Kingsley  travels through the networks of the current migration crisis occurring around the Mediterranean. From war-torn Syria through the Balkans, and from sub-Saharan Africa through “that other sea” the Sahara desert to the shores of Libya, Kingsley describes the motivations, risks, and horrors of migration that have thrown Europe into political uncertainty. In reporting on the experiences of several individuals a unique portrait is formed, much like Sekula’s portraits of dock workers and individuals living near and among major international shipping ports. The book reveals the harrowing spatiality of the sea within contemporary notions of liberation. As asylum seekers, the economically dispossessed, and refugees look to find spatial stability, western democracies continue nativist trends of wall-building and policing shores and ports. The injustice on display in the work of Sekula and the reporting of Kingsley reveals the hidden misery of global economic disparity. War and poverty drive people to flee their homes, while the geopolitical maneuvering of first-world, imperial nations incites these harsh conflicts.

Similarly, in Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes, Mimi Sheller maps out the inequities which can arise as a result of the way people physically navigate space. Sheller delves into the issues of migrant justice and the ways states organize borders to keep people either included or excluded. She also discusses the infrastructural injustice inherent in the ways we plan our cities, and how planners isolate neighborhoods through lack of transportation or other opportunities. Her work provides great context for an assessment of Sekula, who seemed to focus not only on structures of injustice, but on the way things move, be it commodity, corporation, or worker. Indirectly, the photographer portrays these issues of bordering and city planning by looking to the sea, that expanse which both holds us in and orders our industrial methods of urbanism.

The work of Kingsley, Sheller and Sekula provide a wide spectrum of information on how spatialized our ways of life are, and more specifically, how that spatiality can be understood by looking at the simple geographic realities of ocean and land. Whether trying to cross oceans for liberation, or by controlling waterfront in order to manage trade between distant states, the sea serves as the centering site of our most intrinsic human conflict. It’s through a meditative contact with the ocean that we can begin to understand the issues of everyday contemporary life. Sekula writes, “the disappearance of the sea took place slowly” arguing that the modern fascination with seascapes as shown in the work of French and Dutch painters had subsided into “regularized and predictable maritime flows initiated by steam propulsion” and later “completed by containerization.” Surely the specter of colonial power and state-sponsored exploration for commodity is not lost on Sekula as he mourns “Why would anyone argue today that the world economy might be intelligently viewed from the deck of a ship?” Sekula suggests that we look back to the sea in order to gain a reliable foothold where we live. From considering the spatial blocking of sea ports in relation to urbanized development, to understanding how the Middle Passage served as the most important stage in the development of the industrialized world, one can begin to see how the oceans contain us. How is the sea activated by human struggle, and how does it regulate mobility both bodily and financially? Today one might also conclude that perhaps the best way to understand the world economy is from the tight quarters of a smuggler’s boat loaded with migrants.

Allan Sekula, ‘Engine-room wiper’s ear protection.’ from the chapter Middle Passage(1993), in Fish Story(MACK, 2018). Courtesy of the Allan Sekula Estate and MACK.

A final portrait for consideration tilted Mike and Mary, an unemployed couple who survive by scavenging and who, from time to time, seek shelter in empty containers. South-Central Los Angeles. August 1994 reveals a resiliency common among Sekula’s photographic subjects. Most are down on their luck, either laid-off workers or residents soon to be displaced by growing ports or developing waterfronts. But in front of his camera, they all seem to shine. Here Mike and Mary stand proud like the nobility of Renaissance painting. Their backdrop, a flatbed trailer loaded with what looks to be shredded paper for recycling, depicts a difficult and hazardous domain. It’s easy to imagine how someone in their circumstance might respond to a photographer asking about their story. It might be only natural to pose pridefully in the face of poverty and dislocation, but their portrait evokes a genuine dignity. Their very stance seems to communicate Sekula’s solidarity with their plight. His images don’t aim to take advantage of any individual and, as author, Sekula does not come off as intrusive or over-bearing. He is clear in his mission to elucidate that “grimy present moment” which affects all of us; viewer, subject, and the countless unknown. In some photographs he even displays a sort of irony that makes one smile, given the ever-present and belligerent hierarchies of a neo-liberal, globalized world. For all the seriousness there is a lightheartedness, as seen in the faces of Mike and Mary.

Mike and Mary also calls to mind a recent novel by a debut author and local Angeleno, A.G. Lombardo. Graffiti Palace revolves around the riots that took place in Watts in 1965, but the novel takes as it’s frame the story of Homer’s Odyssey. The novel’s main character Americo Monk traverses a rioting Los Angeles just as Odysseus sailed the Mediterranean, encountering sirens and monsters and a whole host of semi-magical characters who are delaying his return home where his pregnant girlfriend anxiously awaits. Lombardo cleverly turns the urban landscape into the unpredictable sea, flipping the spatiality of Homer’s Odyssey. In a clever twist, the protagonist’s home is a masterfully constructed DIY shipping container palace which literally hangs over the sea from a pier in the port’s complex:

dim corridors snake through the labyrinth of steel boxes, created by confluences of gaps amid the containers, or shipping doors ajar, or crawl spaces through torched holes or peeling iron sides. There are ropes, ladders stacked crates, purloined boat ramps, illegally welded rebar rungs and handholds, ingress and egress, but these signs of human habitation have been carefully hidden from the city to the northwest.

Lombardo has imagined a world where the closed space of the port has been masterfully retaken by the intrepid spirit of a few individuals.

Allan Sekula, ‘Conclusion of search for the disabled and drifting sailboat Happy Ending.’ from the chapter Middle Passage(1993), in Fish Story(MACK, 2018). Courtesy of the Allan Sekula Estate and MACK.

An erudite essay by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Allan Sekula: Photography Between Discourse and Document,” closes out this reissue of Fish Story. One of the most pleasurable reading experiences of the book, this essay distills Sekula’s work into its most essential function within an academic framework. Buchloh makes a great argument for the necessity of “critical realism” like Sekula’s, arguing that the work occupies a discursive space somewhere between that of the artist and that of the critic:

Ultimately, what distinguishes Sekula’s work from traditionalist realism, however, is the fact that the subjects addressed by his photographic narrative sequences are both the social subjects and spaces and their conditions of experience as well as the linguistic and institutional conventions…Sekula’s redeployment of the linguistic functions of factual and descriptive reports, his constructions of a relatively cohesive and circumscribed plot (however self-conscious in its constructedness as partial fiction) have instantly disabled the reading public of conceptual and postconceptual art from positioning his work in a “legible” tradition of advanced avant-garde practices.

Reading Fish Story is unlike reading most other texts. At a glance the narrative suggests a shifting political landscape as it relates to the specific sites of globalized trade, namely ports and shipping vessels navigating the oceans. But close readings of Sekula’s text allows for closer readings of his photographs. His academic and playful handling of his own interest in the subject enlivens the narrativity of the entire project. The reader seems to sway, as though aboard a ship in rough seas, between understanding the vaguely concrete reality of global space and experiencing some sort of heroless journey. Sekula’s project, wonderfully brought together in this volume, feels no less than epic.

Gabriel Boudali is a writer living in Richmond, VA.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 1st, 2019.