ALLAN SEKULA PHOTOGRAPHY AGAINST THE GRAIN PDF

To encounter his work is to discover how he reveals the complex politics of representation with critical scrutiny and a measured, unsensational composure. Both as writer and artist, Sekula entrenched himself in a discursive approach to documentary where he examined social relations and labour within global capitalism and trade. His reasoned, eloquent prose matched an understated and balanced photographic output. Recently, I was fortunate enough to speak to David Campany, an educator, curator, and writer. It was an essay that hugely changed my thinking about photography, almost a paradigm shift.

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To encounter his work is to discover how he reveals the complex politics of representation with critical scrutiny and a measured, unsensational composure. Both as writer and artist, Sekula entrenched himself in a discursive approach to documentary where he examined social relations and labour within global capitalism and trade.

His reasoned, eloquent prose matched an understated and balanced photographic output. Recently, I was fortunate enough to speak to David Campany, an educator, curator, and writer. It was an essay that hugely changed my thinking about photography, almost a paradigm shift.

Was it a particular essay or work? One image is by Alfred Stieglitz, the other by Lewis Hine. The Hine was made in the context of documentary, and later gets shifted into the museum and the history of photography. The idea of art and politics co-existing is deeply problematic and I think this essay pretty much lays that ground.

When you think of it in this sense, you can see why Sekula stayed with the medium for so long. In the essay, he hopes documentary will move beyond its reductive modernist form and adopt more rigorous strategies. Do you think it could be read as a kind of manifesto? DC: The idea of art and politics co-existing is no more or less deeply problematic than the idea of them being separate.

But nobody said it was going to be a picnic. Photojournalism went into a tailspin, or free fall. No longer could it assume a form and context, it had to fight for them. In other words, it had to reengage with its necessarily experimental basis. We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a form they can master.

In the mids and for many, even now the assumption was that you could be a documentary photographer or an experimental photographer. Experimental documentary photography was regarded as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Interestingly, documentary filmmaking had always preserved a much more vital and sovereign relation to the experimental. Perhaps this is why Sekula saw around him so few models of progressive photo documentary and looked instead to experimental documentary film.

This realization that documentary form cannot be assumed but must emerge from the midst of each and every work was, of course, the ticket by which documentary re-entered contemporary art as a vital force art being an arena in which form is an always active concern, not a default.

We now know that there were always practitioners with this experimental approach, this need to accept the open and fluid basis of documentary photography. I have this vision of him as a spending a great deal of time talking to people, recording them with a dictaphone and occasionally snapping photographs.

Am I even close? However, I remember being struck by how much his photography was informed by the images of others. Evans a little, but Lee Friedlander a lot. Martha Rosler wrote a super-smart piece about him. At the same time, of course, Friedlander was one of the poster boys for the kind of photography being trumpeted by John Szarkowski at MoMA.

This is important and complicated. Whatever the claims made for a photograph — formalist, conceptualist — they are in the end only claims. Maybe at that time the argument had to be put forward in that emphatic and binary way.

I feel brave or foolish enough to say this, because at least for a while I identified with that position. So I was thrilled when — scroll through a decade or two — Sekula did actually find collaborators notably Noel Burch on the film The Forgotten Space. Most often blue collar working class labour. Is photography labour in the same sense as labouring on a production line or in a busy dockyard? If not, what is it? If so, how so?

These are complex questions that go all the way back to the worker-photographer movements of the s and 30s. Before any claims or context that are created by the artist there is the relationship to the technology, a subject that must be translated, there is the formal arrangement of what is placed in front of the camera. Which of his photo-works would you say are particularly strong in this regard?

It comprises three American colour domestic snapshots from a day in a family history involving a man in military uniform, and a text of around three or four thousand words, in which Sekula itemises the typical interpretation that just about anyone would make of these images.

Reading this text is like experiencing a super slow motion replay of those first few seconds in which you look at photographs and come to quick conclusions. I prefer it in the book. He presents works that are exactly that, meditations that merge looking with reading as opposed to purely aesthetic experiences in looking and responding to only visual information.

DC: The reception of his work has had more to do with his politics: against the grain. Despite this do you think it became anywhere near crystallised in his turn towards film? Or was that supplementary to his overall project? SS: Yes, very true, perhaps the idea of completion is totally irrelevant when we talk about the circulation of ideas and images.

I personally found his work very useful in bridging theory with my own practice. Sekula, Burgin and Rosler all provided this in their works. Can you think of anyone who works in this way today? Perhaps this was of its time? DC: Well, the history of photographer-writers is long and illustrious.

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Allan Sekula, Against the Grain

This storm is what we call progress. History blows back. Progress, not regress, leaves one disaster after another in its wake. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

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