I received the news yesterday of Allan Sekula's death on Saturday night. Allan was my teacher and my friend––or more exactly, my friend and then my teacher. We met in 1991 when luck put us together at an open portfolio review at the San Francisco Art Institute. At the time, I was making street photographs as someone unschooled in art and immersed in philosophy, politics and literature. Allan was encouraging and gently critical, and sensing that there was more to say than a half hour could accommodate, took me out for coffee after the review. He was like that: interested in people and their potential. By the end of the conversation, he had invited me to study with him at CalArts. I nearly went, though in the end it wasn't possible for practical reasons. We kept in touch as I moved back and forth between San Francisco and India.
Luck brought us together once again in 1997, when I was a graduate student at Stanford, and Allan a visiting faculty member. We worked closely together as I was wrestling with a sprawling documentary project on labor, politics and culture in rural south India. I learned enormously from him. He was one of the most brilliant conversationalists I have ever known, someone with the capacity continuously to weigh each point against empirical evidence, against a battery of nuanced qualifications from a variety of sources, and against equally nuanced counter-examples. His style of talk was a mixture of analytic precision and propulsiveness, at once careful and restless, sincere and frank, and included cascades of disruptive associations of the kind that sometimes appear in his writing. Perhaps most of all, conversation, for Allan, was a matter of practicing intellectual responsibility––to you (his partner in the moment), to those who wrote and produced culture, including those with whom he disagreed deeply, and to the audience of interested others whom he would never know, but whose judgments he assumed to be important, and hanging in the balance. It would be wrong, however, to consider him just a self-respecting academic. Girding his intellectual seriousness was an urgent ethical seriousness, a conviction that thinking matters because human relations matter. He was deeply sensitive to and critical of exploitation of many kinds and on many levels. He understood that dissenting toward ethical repair meant valuing human struggle before ideas, even the most liberating ideas––which in practice are only as respectable as the people who champion them. Allan seemed to live this understanding wholly, ardently, and naturally. To me it seemed that he had found for himself a rare form of dignity––the kind not predicated on self-mastery or the effort to master others, rather on compassionately engaging the critical intelligence of others, with others, for others. His personal manner was strikingly unaffected, a blend of direct and disarming, alert and warm. He knew how to meet people on their own terms, and was interested in talking to all kinds of people. He took conversations with unskilled laborers as seriously as those with the most accomplished intellectuals, and cultivated relationships with both.
The art world knows Allan as a great photographer, and a nearly peerless example of an artist-intellectual, someone for whom writing, theorizing, studying, making pictures, films, books and installations all occurred as part of an integrated practice––someone for whom good analysis was ultimately open ended, i.e. good to the extent that it yielded spaces in which to imagine and live change. Allan thought of himself as an outlier in the art world. This is, at least, what he told me in our last long conversations in December 2011, when he visited Atlanta to screen his extraordinary film, "Forgotten Space," and participate in a colloquium at Emory at the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts. We hadn't seen each other in awhile, though we had spoken by phone periodically. (In 2008, he had invited me to teach at CalArts––and once again, though excited at the opportunity to work with him, I declined for practical reasons.) I am loath to grab hold of those last conversations with him––to hang on to the image of him there and then. It seems fair to say that in death, appreciation of his brilliance and his career will rise, and his profile will wax, and this is as it should be. But I, for one, hope he never becomes a legend. To know him was not to know a legend. He was too present, too acute, too generous, too down to earth, too much a mensch for that word to do him justice.
August 12, 2013
Allan Sekula, front at left, Emory University, December 2011