Fish Story, Allan Sekula's photography

Allan Sekula Fish Story

Man Salvaging Bricks, 1989.

Chief Mate, 1989.

Hammerhead crane unloading forty-foot containers from Asian ports. American President Lines terminal. Los Angeles harbor (from Fish Story, Chapter 1), 1988-1995 edition of 5. San Pedro, California, November 1992.

Shop occupied by women clerks for eighteen months in dispute over pay. Rúa Príncipe (from Fish Story, Chapter 5), 1988-1995 edition of 5.

Panorama. Mid-Atlantic. (from Fish Story, Chapter 3), 1988-1995 edition of 5 (right side image of diptych).

Company golf course reserved for visiting shipowners. Hyundai shipyard. (from Fish Story, Chapter 4), 1988-1995 edition of 5.

Army VIIths Corps, 1989.

Workers cleaning oil spill, 1989.

Koreatown, 1989.

Doomed fishing village of Ilsan. (from Fish Story, Chapter 4), 1988-1995 edition of 5 (diptych), September 1993, South Korea.

Artist's Statement

In July of 1989, the last unionised shipyard in Los Angeles harbor closed. Although Los Angeles now handles the largest volume of maritime trade of any port in the Americas, ships are no longer built here. The remaining yard repairs Navy ships returning from the Persian Gulf, and breaks up obsolete aircraft carriers and submarines, employing workers recruited in Matamoros, across the Mexican border from Brownsville, Texas. Most of the giant container ships, stacked high with the uniform metal boxes that give this trade the appearance of a purely abstract movement of goods, are built now by the underpaid and overworked and increasingly militant welders and pipefitters and shipwrights of South Korea. The abandoned shipyards of Los Angeles and San Francisco now come to life briefly as sets for Hollywood films, fictional sites of crime, romance, and espionage.

Movies are made here, but otherwise the industrial appearance of the port is misleading. This is a place of accelerated flows, of global distribution. Some functions hypertrophy while others atrophy. Similar things have happened in Newcastle and Glasgow, the great shipbuilding cities of the first and second industrial revolutions. The Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend-on-Tyne survives with a occasional Royal Navy contract. The deserted quays along the Tyne now provide “atmosphere” for neo-noir crime dramas such as Get Carter and Stormy Monday. In Glasgow, civic boosters stage a Garden Festival on the ruins of the old Clydeside industrial waterfont.

In these new waterfront films and physical relics, we are witnessing a double process of mummification. If past labor-power is always embedded within active capital, then the esthetic preservation of inactive, obsolete capital – of factories, warehouses, mines, machinery and of shipyards – can be seen as the embalming of the already embalmed. But human labor is like a perpetually resurrected zombie, always returning somewhere from the dead, despite the bourgeois fantasy of a utopian world of wealth without workers.

But it is capital that is the leading, protean force, pushing people this way and that and leaving them to stew or rot or boil over.

About the photographer


1951, Erie, United States



Based in

California, United States

About Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula received an MFA from the University of California, San Diego in 1974. Shortly after receiving his degree, he began publishing widely-read articles in ARTFORUM. He taught briefly at New York University in the School of Cinema Studies, then for five years at Ohio State University’s Department of Photography and Cinema, before returning in 1985 to Los Angeles to join the faculty of California Institute of the Arts where he taught for nearly three decades. The essays collected in his first book, Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973–83 (1984), significantly altered the way in which the documentary function of photography was conceptualised. Other books include Fish Story, 1995; Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes, 1996; Dismal Science, 1999; Performance under Working Conditions, 2003; TITANIC’s Wake, 2003; Polonia and Other Fables, 2009; and The Dockers’ Museum, 2013 (forthcoming). Sekula has received numerous honours including Artist’s and Critic’s awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Getty Research Institute, Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, and The Calder Studio Residence. In 2012 he was awarded the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art by the College Art Association. Solo exhibitions include Generali Foundation, Vienna, Austria Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, MA Akbank Art Center, Istanbul, Turkey Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, Belgium.

Allan Sekula died in Los Angeles on August 10, 2013.