Against aestheticism and neutrality

Essay about Allan Sekula's fight against aestheticism and neutrality
Words by
© Allan Sekula | Panorama, Mid-Atlantic, November. 1993

Sekula is an American photographer, filmmaker, writer, critic, and activist most renowned for his works that depict conditions of workers in the global maritime economy, as well as for his critical essays that accompany those works. While Sekula often addresses questions of class and labour, in a broader context, his works of photographs also self-consciously distance themselves from two predominant traditions of 20th-century photography he deems problematic: aestheticism and neutrality.

This essay will assess what specific concerns the artist finds troubling in each of these traditions respectively, how his works respond to those issues, and what he hopes to achieve through his practice. Then, I will delve into one of his photographs titled Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993 and analyse its significance in light of his overall commitment to critical realism.

The trend in the 20th-century photography that Sekula first tackles is aestheticism, the term he uses to explain the trend that sought to raise the position of photography to that of genres considered as ‘high art’ at the time, such as painting, drawing, and sculpture. This trend also stems from serious photographers’ efforts (those who made meticulously developed photographs as opposed to quick snapshots) to distinguish themselves from more casual photographers; the latter group has exponentially grown in number by the end of the 19th century and more so after the invention of Kodak’s Brownie camera in 1900, which made photography easy and accessible to a wide public.

Alfred Stieglitz | The Steerage (1907)

It says near to nothing about the lives of these immigrants.

Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage (1907) is an excellent example of art photography. Stieglitz brought fine art photography from Europe to the United States and actively promoted photography as fine art. He believed that in order for photography to be taken seriously, it should not copy or mimic painting, but rather do something that painting cannot do, hence advocating “the model of autonomous aesthetic endeavour” devoted to anti-utilitarian avant-garde, as Sekula puts in the introduction of his book Photography Against the Grain (xii). The Steerage is one of his most outstanding works that straightforwardly depict scenes of contemporary life, deviating from his earlier photos that rendered painterly images of Symbolist subject matters. In this image of European immigrants densely packed in the steerage, one sees internal logics and rhythms formed by patterns of lines, shapes, and a variety of hues ranging between black and white; the circular shape of the white hat in the upper half of the image is repeated in the drum-like object located at the bottom left corner; long cylinder poles, decking boards, and a ladder frame the entire image in a way that leads the spectator’s eyes from borders into the centre, and vice versa.

The ills of aestheticism

Sekula, however, sees these kinds of avant-garde, modernist works, and more importantly, the photographic discourse around such works, as limiting the possibility of meaning and too removed from the world. One could say that the organization of shapes and spaces in The Steerage is interesting and even beautiful, but it says near to nothing about the lives of these immigrants. As a result, one could potentially criticize it as a dehumanizing work in which individuals are only represented as mere shapes and forms. Furthermore, because of this lack of explanation for contexts, the human experience is often attributed to the photographer's person and his ‘genius mind.’ Sekula believes that such transfers of photographic art into a mystical realm is equal to an act of closure that precludes precise understanding of the image and solidifies and reinforces the powers that appropriate it.

Moreover, he contends that art photography presents photographs as precious objects of craftsmanship, as fetish objects or documents. Equipped with the mass production and circulation of image, photography has the power to inform and affect the spectator in specific ways, as the artist describes in On the Invention of Photography, an essay in Photography Against the Grain. Since the efforts to establish photography as art led to the transformation of photographs into fetishized artefacts and delineation of a clear boundary between photography and its contexts, Sekula declares that such efforts produced what he calls “the ills of aestheticism”: the loss of social and historical contexts which are necessary for accurate apprehension of the works and their meanings.


Neutrality is another tradition and ideology of 20th-century photography, mainly esteemed by documentary photography that the artist finds problematic. What he means by neutrality is closely related to the notion of ‘photographic truth’ or ‘photographic realism’: a naïve belief that a single image can express all truth and essence about that image. Instead of seeing photographs as embedded with the producer’s and users’ intentions or purposes, the ideology of neutrality assumes that photographs are objective and unbiased and thus makes a singular conclusion based on what the image portrays. In other words, it neglects critical understanding of contexts that shape the photographs, which include but are not limited to: the artist’s intent, the work’s commission, exhibition, and circulation, and the work’s relationship to time, history, and memory. Allan Sekula believes that such misunderstanding and or rejection of the contexts of the pictures actually stems from positivism that wants to instrumentalize those images to serve an ideology or ideologies of the powerful. He writes in Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation, another essay from the same book: “The only “objective” truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something – in this case, an automated camera – was somewhere and took a picture. Everything else, everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs”. As this statement describes, a photograph itself can never be “neutral” or “impartial,” and thus, the prevalent perception of photography as a universal language capable of showing “the essence” of the depicted scene or moment is misleading; art is always political.

© Nick Ut | Napalm Girl, 1972

Napalm girl

Nick Ut’s famous photograph Napalm Girl demonstrates how the supposed neutrality of traditional documentary photography can be wrong. This image from 1972 encapsulates the terror of the United States’ war in Vietnam – the indigenous children of a Vietnamese village are running towards the camera in pain following the bombing (captured in the background of the photo), and the naked girl in the middle is screaming with her mouth wide open. This photo shocked the American public as well as the rest of the world and contributed to Americans’ strong demand for the U.S. government to withdraw its military from the war. However, behind the iconic status of this image (it appeared in The New York Times the day after it was photographed, and also won a Pulitzer Prize) for capturing “the decisive moment” – a concept touted by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who is often considered as the father of street photography – during the U.S. war in Vietnam, there is an artistic intervention by the photographer that most people don’t know about: this photograph was in fact carefully manipulated by the photographer to emphasize the agony of the subject.

uncropped version of © Nick Ut | Napalm Girl

The uncropped version reveals that Ut cropped out the right part of the original to remove the solder who is loading his camera. The photographer did so probably because he thought that this detail would be distracting for the message he wants to convey and also because he wanted to place the naked girl in the centre to draw immediate attention to her. Such an editing process is just one example that illustrates how often the presence and influence of photographic works’ makers are set aside in the tradition of documentary photography. The same applies to press companies that release such works, institutions such as museum and gallery spaces that exhibit them in specific frameworks, and governments and corporates that exert pressure on those public spheres and appropriate the images for their means and purposes. Put another way, in the process of creation, circulation, and preservation, critical discourse around documentary photographs tend to focus only on the singular, iconic shots and, by doing so, significantly lose their contexts.

Bourgeois values and cultures

Allan Sekula finds that the aforementioned problems in the traditions of documentary photography and their continuation in contemporary photography are deeply rooted in bourgeois values and cultures, along with the inequalities that the capitalist system engenders. He writes in Photography Against the Grain that these issues are part of “a failure of petit-bourgeois optimism” and a failure of ideology to provide an adequate interpretation of the world we live in (70). Hence, many of Sekula’s works are a response to not only the traditions as mentioned above within the history of photography, aestheticism and neutrality but also the ideologies and power structures these traditions serve.

Sekula does not let art galleries select and sell individual photographs to collectors.

His work Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993 from Fish Story shows how the artist successfully addresses contemporary socio-political concerns while simultaneously preserving essential contexts attached to his photographic endeavour. Fish Story is a book with series of photographs Sekula made during his extensive travels to traditional ports around the world. His strong interest in international markets and networks revolving around goods, knowledge, money, power, and individual experiences led him to follow the ports and workers there to study and expose the global power, economic developments, and more importantly, human sacrifices that enable such power structures to thrive – which are, unfortunately, often invisible in our mainstream media. He is cautious in telling these stories, however. Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993, when singled out from the series, could be easily read as a beautiful panorama image of steel container boxes travelling in the ocean; the pattern of boxes’ colours, the contrast between the ocean’s turbulent waves and silver linings in the background, and the manufactured objects juxtaposed with the sublime nature are some of the examples of reading that the spectator can elicit from looking at this image. However, Sekula intends to show more than such interpretations and abstractions of the photograph; he never presents the work as a singular image that stands on its own by capturing the essence or even beauty of the depicted scene, a problem that frequently arises in both of the ideology of aestheticism and that of neutrality. Instead, he clarifies that the work is a part of series, a part of his academic study on industrial labour’s productions and conditions. In addition, Sekula is also fully aware of the important role that art collections and archives play in preserving the contexts. For instance, he does not let art galleries select and sell individual photographs to collectors because he is worried that the separation could risk losing the specific contexts that are attached to those works. Although there are limits as to what extent he can exert influence in such situations, not to mention the unstoppable digital circulation of his images, the artist nonetheless tries his best to control the afterlife of his works. For him, reality is never automatically built into the medium of photography, and it is something that constantly changes depending on the circumstances that photos are placed into.


In light of the concept of committed art, which I investigated in another paper, On the Concepts of Committed Art and Committed Artists, Sekula’s artistic practice seems very committed overall. On the one hand, it relies on photography’s autonomy, in other words, what only photography can do and other artistic mediums cannot; Hilde van Gelder and Jan Baetens explain in the introduction of Critical Realism in Contemporary Art: Around Allan Sekula’s Photography that photography has a causal and indexical relationship to reality, meaning that a camera can easily capture a given time or space and quickly produce a visual display of that exact moment or space through the camera. On the other hand, Sekula’s practice also relies on the artistic freedom to intervene during or after producing their images, such as framing the shots, using unique angles, cropping out certain details, and combining multiple images together. His photographs are highly crafted and often aesthetically pleasing. Sekula makes great efforts to maintain tensions between the inevitable indexicality to the reality that the medium of photography has and artificiality that results from the artist’s intervention. Furthermore, by accompanying the works with his writings, he also draws attention to other forms of artificiality such as discourse on the tradition of documentary photography and art history, art market, art institutions, press, and circulation of images in cyberspaces.

He tackles the concept of realism differently.

Through his works, Allan Sekula not only reveals multiple layers of settings and circumstances (which include the social and political backgrounds) underneath the appearances of the images but also presents new ways of representing the real. He tackles the concept of realism differently from both traditional art photography and traditional documentary photography and yet does not entirely abandon one in favour of another. Sekula’s concern is neither to establish photography as fine art as Alfred Stieglitz did nor to capture the “essence” in a single image like Nick Ut did. Instead, he brings to light the limits in each model of photographic practice by perpetuating the tension between them. By doing so, he also uncovers the performativity of photography – its power to act instead of merely documenting and presenting the truth(s). As Hilde van Gelder and Jan Baetens expatriate in their note, the concept of realism is no longer limited to photographic realism, as it has been historicized and came to possess multiple meanings; realism is never simply mimetic, but rather productive because it invents new ways of presenting the world (Baetens 7-8). Sekula, then, is a photographer who hopes to contribute to critical realism by exposing the limits in the past models of realism (namely, the ideology of aestheticism in art photography and the ideology of neutrality in documentary photography), as well as presenting a more multidimensional approach or perspective in creating and interpreting photography.

Original title Allan Sekula: Photography Against Illusion and Towards Critical Realism
Citation: Lee, R. (2021). Allan Sekula: Photography Against Illusion and Towards Critical Realism. Academia Letters, Article 700.
Works Cited
Baetens, Jan, and Hilde Van Gelder. Critical Realism in Contemporary Art: Around Allan Sekula’s Photography. Leuven: Leuven University, 2010.
Sekula, Allan. Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993. In Fish Story. 2nd ed. Richter Verlag, 2002.
Sekula, Allan. Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983. Hali- fax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984.
Stieglitz, Alfred. The Steerage. 1907. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed August 14, 2018.
Ut, Nick. The Terror of War. 1972. In TIME 100 Photos. Accessed August 14, 2018. http://
Ut, Nick. Napalm Girl. 1972. In PRI. Accessed August 14, 2018. stories/2018- 02-21/how-vietnam-wars-napalm-girl-found-hope-after-tragedy.

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