I am ashamed to admit that I was a latecomer to the magic of Allan Sekula. Far too much of a latecomer. I discovered his stunning work on shipping and transport, last year; he died in August last year. His amazing film Forgotten Spaces stays with you, flashes of sound, slivers of images, whole stories, the mood of melancholy.
Sekula has a sense of place that prevents his representation of the sea from succumbing to maudlin transcendental meditation. His images and writing -however lyrical- convey the solidity, the lived-in-ness, the texture of ships, trains, homeless camps, ports and of the sea itself. He himself attributes his ability to capture these places so intensely, beautifully, materially, to having grown up in a harbour, to “a certain stubborn and pessimistic insistence on the primacy of material forces” which is “part of the common culture of harbor residents” habituated to ships that “explode, leak, sink, collide.” Not only does he manage to let you catch a glimpse of this, it is there in the rhythms of his writing, the harsh music of words, all those unforgiving staccato x’s, k’s, c’s in “explode, leak, sink, collide” that feel like they can be touched. And listen to this
Space is transformed. The ocean floor is wired for sound. Fishing boats disappear in the Irish Sea, dragged to the bottom by submarines. Businessmen on airplanes read exciting novels about sonar. Waterfront brothels are demolished or remodelled as condominiums. Shipyards are converted into movie sets. Harbors are now less havens (as they were for the Dutch) than accelerated turning-basins for supertankers and container ships. The old harbor front, its links to a common culture shattered by unemployment, is now reclaimed for a bourgeois reverie on the mercantilist past. Heavy metals accumulate in the silt. Busboys fight over scarce spoons in front of plate-glass window overlooking the harbor. The backwater becomes a frontwater. Everyone wants a glimpse of the sea.
His pictures of destroyed shipbuilding economies are not pornographies of ruin. What Lefebvre was to cities, Sekula is to seas and ports. He writes about and photographs and films the people who work on ships, the longshoremen, shipbuilders and stevedores who are discarded when shipyards close (as he did in his stunning Dismal Science about Glasgow), the truckdrivers whose vehicles are the capillaries into which the heart of the cargo ship pumps its blood of goods, and ordinary life near shipyards and ports as he does so beautifully with the Mexican-American communities near the Long Beach Port.
When I was writing my first book, my constant companion was Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness (in sublime translation by Ibrahim Muhawi). It let me remember what I wanted to write about, and the beauty of its poetry prevented the congealing of my enthusiasm in the frigidity of so much academic reading.
I suspect Sekula’s Fish Story and his other essays will be my beacon (if I am allowed a cheesy pun) while I write about ships and ports and transport. He never loses his sense that the sea is magical, that there is a fetish quality about it – no matter how much of a workplace it also (even primarily) might be. That he was a constant and strong ocean-swimmer probably allowed him an embodied and affective connection to the sea, and there is a residue of romance in how he sees the sea as a place, which a lot of academics disavow and “critique”. I don’t know. I love the romance in his work as much as I do the materiality of the sea and port and sea-work and port-work he is so good at inviting us to see.