Allan Sekula (1951-2013) was an American photographer, writer, critic and filmmaker. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, he lived most of his life in Los Angeles and the surrounding regions of southern California, earning BA and MFA degrees in Visual Arts from University of California, San Diego, and teaching at California Institute of the Arts for over three decades.
Sekula may be best known for his substantial essays of images and texts exploring the maritime world, such as Fish Story featured in Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta XI (2002), and subsequent films The Lottery of the Sea (2006) and The Forgotten Space (2010), the latter co-directed with Noël Burch. Growing up in San Pedro, the immense port of Los Angeles, Sekula gravitated to the sea as a space of freedom and hard, sweaty work. As important, the contemporary maritime world was a site of rapid changes in modern technologies from traditional bulk holds to enormous container ships and accompanying cranes, which reduced much labor on the seas and in the ports while also greatly increasing global trade and outsourcing of manufacturing to sites of cheaper labor. Thus Sekula, grandson of a Pennsylvania railroad blacksmith, found himself wanting to redirect attention to this largely ignored field of work and commerce in the age of more glamorous air travel and high-speed global communication networks. But more than the sea, Sekula’s abiding focus was the increasingly downgraded world of industrial work. An unashamed Marxist, he consistently invoked the centrality of the labor theory of value. And following both Karl Marx and Roland Barthes, he protested the commodity-oriented culture’s glossing of the diverse forms of work that make our material world possible.
Photography for Sekula was haunted by both human labor and the hegemonic disregard for such agency and transaction from below. Even as a student plotting the possibility of living as an artist and activist (at a time when his father had lost his job like so many aerospace engineers during a period of industrial contraction with the winding down of US military intervention in Southeast Asia), Sekula, the eldest of five children, confronted his own precarious social position coming from a family struggling to retain middle-class respectability. As an engaged anti-war activist, he simultaneously sought to figure out how art and photography both contributed to the reigning social order and, if used deftly, might undermine it.
Throughout his career, he represented himself as well as others in his depictions of class struggle ever in flux.
Already with his work made at UCSD in the early 1970s, both his writings and art aimed to bridge the gap between conceptual and documentary practices, focusing on economic and social themes ranging from family life, work and unemployment to schooling and the military-industrial complex. While questioning many documentary conventions, Sekula continued to see photography as a social practice, answerable to the world and its problems.
In his lifetime he earned numerous awards—National Endowment for the Arts, US Artists Fellows Award, College Art Association, Camera Austria, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His art works are in the collection of Museum of Modern Art, NY; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art; Art Institute of Chicago; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Ludwig Museum, Cologne; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Tate, London; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Foundation, Vienna; Museum Folkwang, Essen; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Stedelijk, Amsterdam; Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, among others.
Posthumous symposia about Sekula’s work and continuing influence have taken place in Zurich (2014), Singapore (2015), Vienna (2017), and Antwerp (2017). Posthumous solo exhibitions of Sekula’s work were organized by Johan Jacobs Museum, Zurich (2014); Galerie Michel Rein (2014); Hoffman Gallery, Lewis & Clark, Portland (2015); NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore (2015); TBA21, Vienna (2017); Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (2017); Beirut Art Center (2018), and Marian Goodman Gallery, London and New York (2019).
Since his death in 2013, Sekula’s archive was transferred to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, CA, his library to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA, and his “Dockers’ Museum” collection of maritime artifacts to Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp in Antwerp, Belgium. The Allan Sekula Social Documentary Fund was established to support ongoing student projects at California Institute of the Arts.