Allan Sekula – Fish Story

Review by Brian F. O’Neill •

Fish Story, the last major project/publication by Southern California based photographer, filmmaker, critic, teacher, and theorist Allan Sekula was originally released coincident with a touring exhibition that began in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 1995 and concluded in Kassel, Germany in 2002. In June of 2018, it was re-released by London headquartered independent book publisher Mack Books (hereafter Mack). Mack has done the photography “world” (inclusive of all its peripheral tendrils in Sociology, Geography, Anthropology, and more) a tremendous service in so doing.

And so, as this is not a new release, I will take this opportunity not only to review the book, but to provide more of an interpretation of the work than a description, as well as adding something of a personal touch. As such, this review breaks with what one typically finds in The Photobook Journal, which speaks to the progressive possibilities of the forum and its editors. My only aim for this review is that the book will find a wider readership than it may already have as I will highlight its significant qualities.

When I purchased my “used” copy of the book sometime in late 2019, it was surprisingly difficult to find much information on Sekula or this book. Indeed, it seemed to have been submerged beneath so much more popular work and photobooks. However, having happened upon an exhibition of Sekula’s first major series Aerospace Folktales at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art in 2017, and finding it a peculiarity among other things I had ever seen in such a museum, I was impelled to sift through whatever digital or other “content” was necessary to begin grasping the import of Sekula’s oeuvre. 

With the reissuing of Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983 (released by Mack in 2016), and particularly with Art Isn’t Fair: Further Essays on the Traffic in Photographs and Related Media in late 2020 (also by Mack), one now has access to much of the work of Sekula, as well as the secondary literature and criticism surrounding it. Of course, all these works have gained renewed interest since Sekula unfortunately passed away in 2013. An interesting lecture/discussion/symposium that accompanied the release of Art Isn’t Fair can be found here. For their part, Mack now advertises these books as part of their collection of books on art theory.

Theory is an interesting category. And indeed, in my personal correspondence with photographers, it is not irregular that they identify Sekula as first and foremost a theorist more than a photographer, per se. For example, his 1981 essay The Traffic in Photographs (which can be downloaded for free here), is standard reading in many, if not all, of the leading M.F.A. programs. And indeed, Sekula is often referenced among other photographers of a particular theoretical persuasion (for example, in his Texts book, which I highly recommend), fellow Southern Californian photographer Lewis Baltz references the tremendous influence of Critical Theory (Martina Olivero has given a very readable discussion of the fundamental elements of this tradition as it concerns Sekula here) to his own work and that of his contemporaries, whether in conformity or counterpoint.

This issue of classification arises elsewhere too, such as in an interview between renowned critic and curator David Campany and Baltz in the 2017 retrospective book of Baltz’s work that was produced by Steidl. Upon Baltz bringing up Fish Story, Campany remarks that: “I remember seeing the exhibition and hating it. But after reading the book over a weekend I came out a different person.” How different? He doesn’t say exactly. You can read that interview here.

So, what is this apparent impenetrability that seems to inhere in Sekula’s photographs? My proposition would be that is has something to do with how theory is manifest(ed)/engaged with through (the act of) photography. Indeed, anyone looking for a “fine” book of art will not find it here – and that is part of Sekula’s aim.

For a complete discussion of Fish Story to be composed within the limits of this review would be impossible. Even the individual chapters could be the subject of sustained analysis, such as the section titled “Middle Passage,” which has a plethora of reference points not only to Sekula’s sustained subject of labor, but to histories of coloniality, racism, and world-systemic domination. But, I will offer some thoughts on how this book might be read for those interested in it.

After several readings and beginning to parse this text and its photographs, I discovered a 1999 lecture by Sekula that has been posted online. For my own interpretation, this is an important lecture because it was given in the period that Fish Story began to be exhibited, and it makes reference to work that does not appear in Fish Story.[1] That work does appear though in Art isn’t Fair, and is called Dear Bill Gates (1999), which consists of a typewritten letter to the Microsoft corporation founder and a tryptic of images taken by Sekula swimming to the edges of the Gates’ Seattle property at Lake Washington. You can see this work here. Why did Sekula do this? In 1998, Bill Gate’s bought Winslow Homer’s 1885 painting Lost on the Grand Banks (which depicts two fishermen struggling against the certain death of pummeling waves) for $30 million (at that time, it was the highest price ever paid for an American painting). Sekula troubles this transaction in his 1999 lecture by posing a question that sets him off into the larger project that Fish Story encompasses:

It struck me as strange and perplexing that Bill Gates would develop a taste for this painting, because in a sense, Gates’ whole project entails the objective of never being lost, of always being connected. Globally. One might say, voraciously so. And so, there is an odd pathos to his wanting to own a painting that depicts solitary fisherman trying to discern the schooner to which he would like to return, which has descended into a fog bank, and this was in fact a depiction of a calamitous occurrence that was quite common.” 

Homer’s interest in creating large canvases of low subjects was not dissimilar from that of many of photographer Lewis Hine’s images, who would operate just a few decades later, i.e., to reveal something of the actual conditions of labor. But, what of Gates’ point of view? Perhaps, Sekula seems to speculate wryly, Gates sees himself as that fisherman, finding his way amongst the high seas of the market: “What interests me is how the sea has returned to the consciousness of late twentieth century elites.” 

I give this background, because it is useful to grasping the intentions behind Fish Story, as well as Sekula’s entire body of work. Always, but especially in Fish Story, he is interested in the articulation between labor and Capital, but also of how to free photography from certain problematics presented by its relationship to modern and contemporary aesthetics (and the art market).

The work that would become Fish Story began in 1987 and largely concluded in 1992. Sekula’s stated premise was the working hypothesis that the sea had vanished from the horizon of late modernity, well at least in popular consciousness as the world began to become more digitally globalized, etc. However, as Sekula got deeper and deeper into the work, he realized that it had never vanished at all. I would even argue that what Fish Story reveals is that the interest in the sea intensified the capitalistic search for new frontiers, or what Sekula calls in his 1999 lecture, the “terrestrialization of the sea” by a new fixity of transport routes that simultaneously aid in the crafting of a fluidity of capital on the land, in Hong Kong, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Rotterdam, Soeul, and other financial centers. 

Clearly, this is not the type of project any ordinary photographer would undertake. And so, across 96 original photographs alongside and numerous textual, cartographic, cinematic, and other references and illustrations, Fish Story takes the reader to spaces that appear abstract, or more precisely, connected to abstract logics, like financial distance and commodity flows, by approaching them photographically in such a way as to reassert, i.e., to insist on their “new materiality.” Indeed, this book has a certain resonance today with the now well-worn phrase “supply-chain issues.” 

Sekula was striking to the heart of industry, for it is the stubborn materiality of the maritime, and its unruliness that the market would not have us believe exists, because as Political Scientist Laleh Khalili notes in her introduction to Fish Story, these spaces of the maritime are intimately linked to the functioning of financial speculation. As she writes on page iv, Sekula’s insistence on “the fleshiness of the world,” and therefore its social dimensions, is exemplified in this work.

Due to the density of theoretical commitments and research underlying this book, Fish Story cannot be read through the images, per se (as David Campany makes clear). Following the web of connections between metropolitan regions and their exploitable peripheries, Sekula’s images take the reader on a unique kind of global voyage that uncovers the classed and racially striated hierarchy of maritime capitalism. Such a bold analysis had to be complimented by a further bold and ingenious use of sequencing, at which Sekula excels. 

For example, in one spread we see a workerless port in Rotterdam, while on the facing page that of Los Angeles, we see something rather different. This occurs in images 17 and 18 – Pancake, a former sandblaster is seen sitting down, stripping copper wire in the Los Angeles harbor, while she looks on with a tired, blank expression at the Rotterdam harbor where an automated robot truck is tested. Beyond a deep and critical irony at work in the images themselves and their sequence, this expresses extremely well the broader concern of Sekula. Here in just two frames, taken in vastly different places, we see the throughline – the search for frictionless accumulation that doesn’t feel the need to bother with the messiness of human labor. 

Another great example is the sequence of images 25-26. On these pages we see a “lottery,” which determines the equitable distribution of labor in Barcelona. This is contrasted with a man salvaging bricks from a demolished warehouse in Rotterdam. Again, the effort to attain frictionless accumulation is ever present. And another great juxtaposition occurs with images 47-48, wherein a worker finishes grinding the propeller shaft in a Hyundai shipyard engine shop while on the facing page we see a scene that could not be more different on first glance – a golf course lies in wait for visiting shipowners, which we discover, is in the same harbor. While neither party in the sequence would venture into the world of the other, Sekula takes us there photographically. 

I have always found images 93-94 particularly poignant too. In them, we witness Mike and Mary, who, Sekula tells us, sleep in shipping containers and scavenge to be able to earn some income. This is contrasted with the contents of some of these containers on the right-side image, of an expensive Richard Neutra designed chair. If there is any photographic poetry here, it is of the singularly gritty, hard-won type that takes everyday life seriously.

It is plain to see, just from these brief examples, that this level of sequencing requires an incredible cultural knowledge that Sekula was to have obtained. These are not just obvious images of suffering and effusive emotion, as photojournalism might uncover. Rather, it is a photography of social processes. These are hard places to access, hard conditions in which to make pictures, and hard things to get to know about and then be able to report upon accurately. Of course, this level of interpretation requires much more of the reader than most photobooks often ask. It is necessary to take in the images, take in the text, then see them in dialectical relation to one another.

Fish Story is the prime example that I am aware of that achieves a fulfilling and stimulating blend of the aesthetic, the social scientific, and the political. As art historian and critic Benjamin H.D. Buchloh mentions in his text at the end of Fish Story, this is the culmination of a lifetime project for Sekula in expanding the limits of photography by unsettling the bounds of it between discourse and document. His statement on Sekula’s aesthetics is worth quoting, that the aim was to craft: “photography from within concrete situations that steps beyond what Victor Burgin called the problem of photographic arts, that the current definition of photography was that of a privileging of the politics of the signifier over the signification of politics” (191). 

As such, Fish Story is at once, rigorously theoretical, empirical, and aesthetically bold. At the same time, it doesn’t sacrifice any of these components in his efforts to craft a critical realism that would brush traditional realism against the grain. It conceives of a critique of the unfolding of contemporary social relations within the expansive parameters of the design and execution of its project and does so in an attractive, multisensory manner. I hope that we will see more of its type and that more readers will find inspiration in this discussion.

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[1] While it cannot be discussed here, it is worth noting that there is also a film by Sekula and Nöel Burch entitled The Forgotten Space, which is a further meditation on the themes addressed by Fish Story. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cWiZ6Nd9Ho

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Brian O’Neill is a photographer and sociologist.

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Fish Story, Allan Sekula, 

Photographer: Allan Sekula, born, 1951 Erie, PA and passing 2013, Los Angeles, CA

Publisher: MACK, London UK copyright 2018

Essays: Laleh Khalili, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh

Text: English

Paperback, perfect bound, 216 pages ISBN 978-1-912339-04-4

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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