Allan Sekula’s career could be tracked as a voyage between tanks of hydrofluoric acid. The artist (who died last year at 62) was introduced to this corrosive substance as a lab technician at an aerospace company in 1968. The second encounter occurred 30-plus years later when he photographed the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, near which he found cylinders containing the acid used to etch the museum’s titanium skin. Having grown up in the culture of California’s defense industry (where his father was a Lockheed Martin engineer), Sekula, by the time he photographed Bilbao, saw the economy of the art world itself as a waste by-product of late capitalism.
Bilbao’s fish-shaped museum on the site of a closed shipyard was intended to bring in tourist dollars as compensation for the bankruptcy of the Basques’ maritime economy. Sekula’s thoughts about the museum resonated with those he had had a year or two earlier while photographing the set of the movie Titanic in Baja, California, which resulted in his 2003 book TITANIC’s wake. These projects led in turn to his last work, Ship of Fools (1999-2010), which was first exhibited at the 2010 São Paulo Bienal. By the 1990s, he had come to see the oceans as the most crucial and revealing site to observe the effects of globalization, since flying “flags of convenience” (registering ships in countries other than those of the owners, in order to circumvent labor laws and registration fees) permits shipping companies to engage in unchecked exploitation of maritime workers and pollution of the seas.
Ship of Fools is unusual for Sekula, in that its subject is one to be celebrated rather than critiqued. That subject is the 1998-2000 voyage around the world by the cargo vessel Global Mariner, whose holds had been reoutfitted to contain a documentary display on working conditions at sea (arranged by the International Transport Workers Federation, an umbrella organization for transport workers’ unions). As usual, Sekula’s photographs, taken on board ships at sea and in ports of call, are accompanied by a text—in this case a revision of one for TITANIC’s wake. This final project reaffirms what has been true of all his work: the originality, complexity and insight of his critique of capitalism are felt in the words he wrote, while his photography recalls snapshots taken by any tourist.
I believe this was a calculated effect on his part, one that the prints and video excerpt at Christopher Grimes (a small selection in comparison to what was shown at São Paulo) confirmed. Sekula eschewed the art photographer’s ambition to create a signature look. “I am not . . . interested in cultivating an ‘individual style,'” he wrote in 1984 in his first major publication, Photography Against the Grain. He wanted his photographs to be as approachable as his words are confrontational. He hoped the pictures would help his work reach an audience wider than the intellectuals who have typically honored his prose.
If a paradox separates his texts from his photographs, a similar inconsistency exists in the texts themselves: between his cold-eyed analysis of the modern/postmodern world and his utopian belief that socialism is possible as a universal fix. Only a profound mind could entertain such contradictions without losing its balance. Sekula was a unique talent—a genius, perhaps—whose loss diminishes the art world he called to account.