A Rare Artist Who Practiced What He Taught

Jill Rahn's picture
The visual arts world has lost a rare visionary with the recent passing of renowned photographer, educator, essayist and critic Allan Sekula. Acclaimed for his unique, multidisciplinary approach, Sekula devoted his life to writing, photography and film, and encouraging scholars and students to think critically about how the visual arts interact with the social and political realities of our time.

A longtime member of the faculty at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Sekula passed away on August 10th at the age of 62 after a protracted illness. Thomas Lawson, Dean of the School of Art at CalArts, notes that “as a writer, Allan described with great clarity and passion what photography can and must do: document the facts of social relations while opening a more metamorphic space to allow viewers the idea that things could be different. And as a photographer he set out to do just that.”

Sekula was born in Erie PA in 1951 and as a child relocated with his family to San Pedro, CA where he quickly became enthralled with the sea, the harbor, and the rich maritime culture of Southern California. He later enrolled at UC San Diego with plans to study marine biology, but quickly switched majors and received a BA in visual arts. Sekula remained at UCSD to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree, after which he began publishing essays on the social uses of photography.

Following a brief stint in New York teaching at the NYU School of Cinema Studies, Sekula spent the next five years teaching cinema and photography at Ohio State University, before joining the CalArts Faculty where he remained for nearly three decades.

Sekula published his first of several books in 1984, entitled Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973–83. This volume was widely credited with inspiring photographers to refine the documentary function of their craft.

Last year Sekula was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art from the College Art Association. His numerous other honors include both Artist’s and Critic’s Awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. Major art collections throughout the world have acquired his photographic works, and his most recent exhibition and book project, The Dockers’ Museum, is scheduled to be published by Leuven University Press at the end of this year.

Sekula’s former student and art lawyer Sergio Munoz Sarmiento says “I will remember Allan for his body of work, his generous outlook on art education and his undying devotion to disseminating the need for art’s role as a critical apparatus. Thank you, Allan. You will be missed.”

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