Allan Sekula’s “Photography, A Wonderfully Inadequate Medium”

Kylie Gilchrist

May 7, 2019
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
March 14–May 18, 2019

In one gruelingly unedited scene of Allan Sekula’s three-hour film essay Lottery of the Sea (2006), a figure suited head-to-toe in white Tyvek hauls a gluey black lump across a slate-gray jetty. Steely waves wash up pebbles of oil, which she collects by rolling or smashing the lump upon them. Her mass will soon be lobbed into a rubber basket, foisted up a dune by a chain of hands, and deposited in a sea of oily baskets awaiting removal. The labor of viewing this protracted sequence faintly echoes its subject: the Sisyphean task of cleaning an oil spill on Spain’s Galician coast, accomplished by volunteers and by hand. In a world where most things are—as Sekula says of a Greek fish market at the film’s start—“fresh but dead,” the scene’s weary, weather-worn figures testify to the fragile solitaries born in struggles to resist the wholesale extermination of human and non-human life.

The film is housed in a screening room at the center of an exhibition purportedly dedicated to Sekula’s photography, underscoring the latter medium’s distinctive feature for the artist: its insufficiency. True to the exhibition’s title, photography’s limitations are foregrounded throughout. The opening sequence of works features Sekula’s early engagement with performance and literature, as in the coupling of his 1973 video Performance under Working Conditions with This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, a 1974 photo sequence that extends the earlier work’s fictionalized story of labor organizing in Carnegie A-440 Pizza, where Sekula was once employed. He is not always known for eliciting laughter. Yet the antics of the lackadaisical pizza cooks turned pro-revolutionary union organizers evoke the ludic sausage factory mutiny of Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout Va Bien (1972). Laughter—as Sekula took to heart from his reading of Mikhail Bakhtin—is a key means of disrupting what he termed the “tyranny of a single anecdote.”1 Against photography’s pretenses to a univocal, documentary truth, he continually reveals the medium’s contingent, contextual, and dialogic character. In granting space to these early pieces, which contest the documentary tradition with their fictionalized performance of real labor, the exhibition keenly displays Sekula’s critical realism.

Marie Muracciole’s curatorial work deftly plays on photography’s dialogic character by pairing different media. Lottery of the Sea’s oil-spill episode is echoed in the photo series “Black Tide/Marea negra” (2002–03), and again draws toward literary fiction in the accompanying text, Fragments for an Opera, which parodies a libretto. Adding another layer of dialog is a group of works that resonates strongly today. Prayer for the Americans 1 (1999/2004), a slideshow of ominously pacific images depicting Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, searches out the roots of American brutality and bellicosity on the world stage. Perched atop the gallery’s stairwell, the photograph Europa (2011) depicts a sleeping figure precariously balanced on a narrow heater at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. This isolated image is initially opaque. Yet attentive viewing renders it legible as an explicit rebuke to the future consequences of Brexiteer nationalism. The photo triptych Dear Bill Gates (1999), meanwhile, announces Sekula’s prescient skepticism of the utopic promises of digital connectivity.

Lottery of the Sea operates as the exhibition’s amoebic core, drawing one in and out of the screening space with the flows of its purposely meandering, disjointed narrative. While made five years prior to Sekula’s other film essay epic, The Forgotten Space (with Noël Burch, 2011), the film’s focus on the sublime dimension that joins aesthetics to the economics of risk makes for timely viewing in this moment of extreme uncertainty. It also indicates one of Sekula’s major omissions: the history of the transatlantic slave trade. This history is inextricable from that of insurance, the main technique of managing economic risk, as Christina Sharpe cogently articulates in criticizing The Forgotten Space for this same blind spot.2 The incomprehensible excess of this ongoing history of violence, its definitive role in the sea’s symbolic legacy and its structural link to globalized capital, remain regrettably outside of Sekula’s frame.

What does remain persistently in view are various forms of collectivity born out of global interconnectedness, while resistant to globalization’s annihilatory and homogenizing tendencies. In Sekula’s persistent efforts to relate the photographic detail to the panorama, or individual experience to the abstract totality of global systems, his photography works in service of a critical viewing that could be the basis for constructing such fragile yet vital alliances.


Allan Sekula, text panel in the series “Fish Story: Loaves and Fishes (Chapter 2),” 1993, included in this exhibition.


Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 25–34.

Photography, Globalization, Film, Labor & Work
Water & The Sea

Kylie Gilchrist is a London-based writer and researcher.

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Marian Goodman Gallery
May 7, 2019

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