Grey Room

Allan Sekula,
 or What Is Photography?

Benjamin H.D. Buchloh

Allan Sekula. This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, 1974. Twenty-nine black-and-white photographs and one color photograph in eight frames, nine color photographs in single frames, text booklets, two chairs. Courtesy the Estate of Allan Sekula.


Buchloh analyzes Sekula’s early artistic practice, and that of his UCSD colleagues, arguing that the group’s renewed engagement with documentary practices dialectically overturns the existing conventions of conceptual art. At the same time, Buchloh sees Sekula and his colleagues as engaging in a “dual historical recovery”: first, recovering the centrality of photography to the pre–World War II avant–gardes, including Soviet factography and, especially, John Heartfield’s politicized montage; and second, recovering a tradition of twentieth-century realism that had been lost or ignored even in the midst of the embrace of photography by the neo–avant–gardes of the 1960s. Thus, for Buchloh, the historical dialectic of realism and modernism is key to understanding Sekula’s practice. In the context of this recovery of realism and the systematic inversion of the premises of conceptual art, Buchloh discerns in Sekula’s early works such as Untitled Slide Sequence (1972), Aerospace Folktales (1973), and Performance under Working Conditions (1973) not only the “labor of representation and the representation of labor” but an “embodiment of representation” concerned with the social constitution of subjectivity and behavior.