Allan Sekula – Fish Story, and Critical Realism

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Allan Sekula was one of the most influential documentarians working in the late 20th Century. An incisive critic, he also was part of the re-imagining of documentary, moving photography (and art, generally) away from that rather ferocious and inward-looking absorption with identity that was postmodernism.

His masterwork, Fish Story, reminds me of Susan Meiselas’ Kurdistan. Both used historical and contemporary images, both made heavy use of text and detailed research, and both had clear themes.

In Sekula’s case, the goal was to examine the impact of Globalisation as a new historical narrative. He used the geographic space of the Oceans to examine connectivity between the information-focused West and the manufacturing focus of the then-emerging economies. He traced the movement of work, of value, and the role of labour within that. Long a critic of the apparent naivety of ‘traditional’ documentary, Sekula defined his practice when he wrote:

‘Thirteen years ago, when I first began making photographs with any serious­ness, the medium’s paramount attraction was, for me, its unavoidable social referentiality, its way of describing – albeit in enigmatic, misleading, reductive and often superficial terms – a world of social institutions. gestures, manners, relationships … At that time photography seemed to me to afford an alternative to the overly specialised, esoteric, and self-referential discourse of late modernism [postmodernism?] which had, to offer only one crude example, nothing much to say about the Vietnam War‘. (Sekula, 2016: IX).

His was a political photography, pushing hard against postmodernist practice. And he also stood against the prevailing critic’s sense that photography is more memorialisation than activism, as suggested in the work of Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes.

Sekula was in the company of Martha Rosler, both as artist and critic, in offering a more socially involved role for photography.

Blake Stimson, in a  2015 lecture on Allan Sekula and Paul Strand noted that a recurrent theme in Sekula’s work was a sensitivity to the vulnerable and the impoverished, as the value of work declined and the age of the consumer blossomed. In contrast, Stimson suggested that Strand’s work invited the viewer to become part of what is happening in the scene. In the lecture:

Stimson suggested that Sekula and Strand present contrasting perspectives of the workforce. Sekula exhibits the vulnerability, suffering and dehumanization that stems from being of the working class. … Strand, on the other hand, presents labor as a necessary function to meet goals. There is no conflict of labor; they are simply getting the job done. … As a result, Strand captures an expression of civil dignity in all of his work‘.  (Stevens, 2015).

Blake Stimson. 2015. Lecture slide.

In the lecture, Stimson notes that the feeling in Strand’s photography and movies is one of workers optimistically joining together, to become part of something productive. By contrast, Sekula offers a feeling of the apparatus controlling the worker, the consumer, keeping them from fully realising their lives, as the gap between the richest in capitalist society continually extends their lead over the rest.

As Bill Roberts noted, Sekula was also rebelling against the simulacra and hyperreality of Baudrillard, wanting to put reality back in the audiences’s view.

Sekula’s project also contested the concealment of the world of production by the art world’s attachment to the fatalistic orthodoxy of a ‘simulationist’ world of endless, autonomous image-proliferation‘. (Roberts, 2012)

In an early CRJ post, on Landscape, I commented that Sekula used Friedrich Engels’ understanding of the role of the working class. Engels considered that the workers underpinned the success of British industry, yet barely enjoyed the fruits of either their own work or the success of society as a whole.

Standing on the deck of his ship as it sailed upriver to London, Engels was straddling two very different ideas of panoramic space: the older pano­ramic tableaux of the Dutch and the new mobile panorama of an accelerated age of steam. He described a liminal maritime space that was just beginning to be enveloped by the polluted miasma of urban industry‘. (Sekula, 1955: 45).

Sekula went on to relate this to the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, appropriate to his own use of the Oceans as a central, contingent space. Sekula clearly recognised that context was everything – in the choice of image, its interpretation through text, and its modes of display and consumption. And this included the importance of series.

This collapse, or blurring, of panoramic maritime space in painting was first grasped by J.M. W. Turner, in works produced coincidentally with the first appearances of steam-driven ‘ships in the decade preceding Engels’ voyage up the Thames. This is not to reduce the Turneresque sublime to a simple technological determinist explana­tion, but rather to suggest that a painted sky that presumed the wind to be a motive force had a dif­ferent referential status from one in which steam and smoke were introduced as evidence of new powers. (Sekula, 1995: 45).

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth exhibited 1842 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

J.M.W. Turner. 1842. Snow Storm-Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth.

‘Steam cut an imaginary straight line through a space previously governed by the unpre­dictability of the wind. Paradoxically, however, steam made the possible directions of movement less evident in the aggregate view of ship and sea and sky. A line of smoke from a funnel is not always an indication of the vector available to or taken by a ship. Only if the speed of the ship greatly exceeds that of the wind, or if the ship steams directly into the wind, will this line indi­cate the ship’s path. Weather became paramount in painting as its actual power over human move­ment diminished, and transit times became more predictable. Turner’s exorbitation of weather occurred at the very historica I moment when it was widely imagined to be vanquished‘. (Sekula, 1995: 45).

Sekula wrote this analysis whilst explaining his own documentary, within Fish Story – the political, cultural and social importance of (and changes in) man’s work and his relationship with the sea.

What I find fascinating is Sekula’s rather singular interpretation of  Turner’s painting. In so many ways, Turner was doing the same job as Sekula – storytelling, combining the power of modern technology and the forces of nature. Turner, however, used a single image, combining the real and the unreal. He was more than an expressionist – he was a narrative poet, and a modern photographer can learn a lot from his practice. Of course, Sekula uses series of images and text, not single photographs, but I still find the interplay between the work of both artists quite fascinating.

There are many themes in Fish Story which have significance to the history of photography, and, less grand, have a bearing on my own documentary work. Benjamin Buchloh’s essay at the end, Photography between Discourse and Document, is insightful.

Buchloh suggests that Sekula’s project redefined the then-prevalent postmodern approach to photography in three ways.

First, his appropriation of the practices of photojournalism and street photography. Sekula himself compared his project with that of Pop Art. Whilst entering a new pantheon of art was not Sekula’s intent – he had a rather overt political objective for his work – the appropriation of the commonplace was reflective of the methodology of Pop Art.

Second, his use of a series of superficially disconnected pictures, which, when sequenced, create a compelling narrative [in the style of Robert Frank, perhaps? My note]. This was in opposition to a gallery-driven aesthetic of a narrowly defined, sometimes typologically driven collection of photographs whose meaning stems from their aesthetic not their content. Buchloh used the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher to comment on the latter, post modern style, devoid of people and human reflection.

Third, Sekula juxtaposed a complex and often rather puzzling selection of photographs to ‘tell’ his story. Again, more like the work of Frank and other ‘concerned photographers’ than those working in deconstruction of images.

These, combined, led to Sekula’s ‘Critical Realism’ and a new photography. To quote Roberts again, in commenting on the 1993 Whitney Biennal:

‘Sekula’s work stood out against the predominance of identity-political practices elsewhere in the show; from Janine Antoni’s chocolate-and-lard sculptural trilogy Gnaw 1992 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), to the varied skin tones of an early instantiation of Byron Kim’s cumulative grid of monochrome paintings, Synechdoche 1991–2 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), and Sue Williams’s confrontational scrawled canvas, Are You Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn? 1992′. (Roberts, 2012).

Turning now to some specific lessons from his work, I note four.

History, research and text

It is impossible to read Fish Story without a sincere appreciation for Sekula’s capabilities as both researcher and writer. Text was central to his work, which added to its richness and its ability to appeal to our imagination – possibly even to help it become a call to action.

Text also allowed Sekula to combine different kinds of images into a coherent narrative. Without context, for example, how does this image relate to Fish Story and the oceans?

Allan Sekula. 1994. Monument to the defenders of  Veracruz against the US marines in 1914.

Yet, Sekula was not about simply recording or memorialising history.

He knew that no photograph is context free, and his aim was interpretation. Roberts, again:

Sekula has been one of the most influential critics of the ‘naïve conventionalism’ of documentary photography; his voice one among many, influenced by the poststructuralist and postmodernist theory that was still ascendant in the 1980s, to have undermined the naturalist assumption that photography might offer ‘truths’ miraculously free of ideological inscription, or that ‘intrinsic’ photographic meaning is determinable outside of photography’s manifold contexts of presentation and the diverse uses to which it may be put‘. (Roberts, 2012).

In other words, Sekula clearly recognised that context was everything – in the choice of image, its interpretation through text, and its modes of display and consumption. And this included the importance of series.

Series and Sequence

Debra Risberg comments:

‘Sequences, Sekula maintains, are to be differentiated from series by their coherence as uniquely determinate arrangements (generally with a beginning and an end), thereby offering more potential resistance than the ‘metronomic regularity’ and indifference of the series – the seriality of much documentary photography or the exchangeability of the photographic typology – to the illegitimate isolation of single images, ripe for either ideal (aesthetic) or real (commercial) appropriation‘. (Sekula & Risberg, 1999: 249).

Sekula uses series as a photomontage, but always with an eye to creating  narrative that the audience can follow and digest. The meaning of the images within the series, and then how they connect into a coherent whole, is more important than the typology of the photograph.


Sekula is a story-teller, not just at a  macro level, constructing an encompassing narrative. But also at a micro level, where individual images not only ‘fit’ within this narrative, but tell personal stories.

Consider these two images.

Allan Sekula. 1990. Boy looking at his mother.

Either photograph could stand alone within the oceanic framework, but together they beg questions of the audience – who, what, where and when.


In his eclectic use of photographs, Sekula moves easily from landscape, to portraits, and to detail.

Allan Sekula. 1994. Containers used to contain shifting sand dunes.

Over the years, Sekula released sections of Fish Story, ahead of it taking its final form in 1995. Buchloh noted a specific juxtaposition of images for a poster,  for the 1994 Berkeley Exhibition, Fish Story (Work in Progress), which Sekula helped design. This perfectly illustrates another aspect of his approach to documentary – the near and far.

As described by Roberts:

‘One is an extreme close-up of a ship’s inclinometer and the other a mid-Atlantic panorama aboard the same ship, looking forward from the back of the top deck, a large number of containers spreading out ahead‘. (Roberts, 2012).

Allan Sekula. 1993. Inclinometer, mid Atlantic, November.

Allan Sekula. 1993. Panorama, mid Atlantic, November.

For Buchloh, the close-up is an example of Sekula’s use of the ‘seemingly irrelevant and banal’ photographic detail as a ‘Brechtian intervention that reminds the viewers … of the constructed nature of the representation’, the pairing of close-up and panorama as two distinct pictorial modes further presages Fish Story’s partial status as ‘a rhetoric of photographic discourses and conventions’. (Roberts, 2012).

In less prosaic terms, Sekula moves between the landscape and the detail, the panorama and the trace.

Although there is a great deal of resonance with Sekula’s work and my own, essentially he was creating a narrative about a current series of events and issues, not dealing with an aftermath of a ‘forgotten’ event. He was uncovering a contemporary truth.

In exploring the physical traces and aftermath of Genocide, my work is using contemporary photographs of actual past events – not memorial, but an explanation of history.

Our work therefore diverges.


From the book blurb:

Completed between 1989 and 1995, Fish Story saw Allan Sekula’s career-long pursuit of a contemporary ‘critical realism’ reach its most complex articulation. Fish Story reconstructed a realist model of photographic representation, while taking a critical stance towards traditional documentary photography. It also marked Sekula’s first sustained exploration of the ocean as a key space of globalisation. A key issue in Fish Story is the connection between containerized cargo movement and the growing internationalization of the world industrial economy, with its effects on the actual social space of ports.

The ambition of Fish Story lies both in its immense complexity and global scope and in its emphatic challenge to the dominant climate of postmodern theory and practice of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fish Story occupies a pivotal place in a gradual shift, still nascent in the early 1990s, from a widespread culture of resignation and cynicism to one of renewed radical engagement in the art world‘. (Mack website).


Header: Allan Sekula. 1993. Doomed Fishing Village of Ilsan. Fish Story, from Tate website. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019). Other images from that same website.


BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

MACK website. 2018. Book blurb on Fish Story. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

MEISELAS, Susan. 1997. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

RIBERY, Fabien. 2018. Fish Story, la globalisation selon Allan Sekula. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

ROBERTS, Bill. 2012. Production in View – Allan Sekula’s Fish Story and the Thawing of Postmodernism. Tate Papers. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

ROSLER, Martha. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

SEKULA, Allan. 1975. On the Invention of Photographic Meaning. Artforum, 13:5, January 1975: 36-45. Reprinted in Victor Burgin, (Ed.). 1982., Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

SEKULA, Allan. 1978. Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation). The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, Photography (Winter, 1978), pp. 859-883. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

SEKULA, Allan. 1981. The Traffic in Photographs.  Art Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1, Photography and the Scholar/Critic (Spring, 1981), pp. 15-25. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

SEKULA, Allan, 1995. Fish Story. 2018 Edition. London: Mack.

SEKULA, Allan. 1995. Fish Story. Witte de With, Centre for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam. Available at: (accessed 16/03/2018).

SEKULA, Allan & RISBERG, Debra. 1999. Dismal Science: Photoworks 1972-1996. Normal: University Galleries of Illinois.

SEKULA, Allan. 2016. Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983. London: Mack.

STEVENS, Julia. 2015. Blake Stimson’s Allan Sekula and Paul Strand lecture. Lewis & Clark: Reinventing Documentary: The Art of Allan Sekula. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

STIMSON, Blake. 2015. Allan Sekula and Paul Strand. Lecture at Lewis & Clarke College. Available at: (accessed 22/04/2019).

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