Allan Sekula: Reading an Archive - Photography between Labour and Capital

It was evident early on in Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital that Allan Sekula was in opposition to Richard Howells assertion in Visual Culture that photography benefits from dualism. Sekula believes that “…dualism haunts photography, lending a certain goofy inconsistency to most commonplace assertions about the medium.” (Sekula, 1999, p.190). Going so far as to say that if photography can be regarded as both art and science, then it can also be said that it is neither. Is this because it is occupying the centre ground of the art/science spectrum? 

For me this starts to become a political issue of photography. A predisposed opinion of the medium. Ignoring the dualism here is to say that other dualisms don't function in synergy together. Right brain/left brain, form/function, black and white, light and shadow. It is easier to hide behind the incredulity of absolute truth and reality than to gauge the variation of data and juxtaposition holistically in a photograph.

Moving on, I come back to Sekula’s thoughts on the archive. I agree with the notion that “We might even argue that archival ambitions and procedures are intrinsic to photographic practice.” (Sekula, 1999, p.182). For two reasons, both of which he refers to. Firstly that the author retain a sense of responsibility in the archive to provide a place of original context and avoid a misrepresentation of the original work. He touches on the editorial issue of collating individuals work into a new narrative such as a group exhibition, that the context of the original is displaced. Secondly, the author can from the archive ‘choose’ in postmodern terms, to re-contextualise or as Sekula says ‘liberate’ the photographs in new and interesting ways. He wrote the essay during the rise of postmodern thought and had an awareness or the changing view points noting that “…it becomes possible to displace subjectivity, to find refined aesthetic sensibility not in the maker of images, but in the viewer.” (Sekula, 1999, p.190).

I struggled at first to understand how this might relate to globalisation, in the beginning it seemed merely to counter argue Howells. But this understanding of where the original archive is from, who may obtain it and how it may be used relates strongly to that theme.

For all the power and control of collating, hoarding and storing mass amounts of cultural products; the process of organising and curating what is seen is also a powerful position as “…archives establish a relation of abstract visual equivalence between pictures.” (Sekula, 1999, p.184). There become two issues I initially see when confronted with. The protection of ones historical narrative, and the displacement of original intent through cultural exchange. There’s a propensity to protect the traditions of ones culture from dilution. And there is a place for culture in its purest sense. My own experiences of cultural exchange educate and inform my own opinion, but admittedly that will also be influenced by the institution of the other, what they want me to know.

Further thoughts on Globalisation

Globalisation has allowed me not only to research but live the germanic form language, I lived in the Netherlands for 3 years, my design training is formed on Scandinavian ideals (which in turn are influenced by the Bauhaus). My childhood curiosity of East Asian culture came out of popular TV and film. As a professional I have been able to extensively travel for work in the region and have access to exhibitions and artworks in person. Not to mention follow-up research on the internet when I return home. All of which is a result of a modern globalised world.

When I think of the kind of photographs I take. Who does it ultimately appeal to? To use Barthes’ analogy, the signifier (the Asian landscape) is to the westerner, the exotic other. To someone indigenous to the culture, the signifiermight embody philosophical connotations. Conversely the graphic compositions to a western eye more familiar with abstraction or constructivism. That would be a stereotypical viewpoint built on assumption. While the tourist gaze still exists, certainly in advertising and tourism, the access to multiple cultures comes much more easily. Maybe the new dualism is to trace the origins of a photograph to its purest point, or mix and match. This exchange is what intrigues me about contemporary Korean photography, particularly in landscape and something I will explore further.


Sekula, A. (1999) ‘Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital’. In: Evans and Hall (ed.) Visual Culture: A Reader. London: Sage. pp 181-192