Allan Sekula (1951-2013) spent more than a decade near the end of his life photographing “the floating world” — not the elaborate Japanese pleasure-zone made famous in Ukiyo-e printmaking but the more mundane, grimier reality of international cargo-shipping, which keeps the global wheels of industrial commerce turning. (Sekula grew up near L.A.’s burgeoning port.) He called the large series “Ship of Fools,” evoking Sebastian Brant’s Renaissance-era allegory for a vessel blindly voyaging.
A modest selection from “Ship of Fools” is on view at Christopher Grimes Gallery. In 1998 the Global Mariner, a converted cargo ship, became a traveling display space for an exhibition about the shadowy world of ships sailing under “false flags” — dubious national registrations often used by corporations to evade laws and exploit workers. The selection includes straightforward, often formal portraits of ships, their crews, dockworkers and others, as well as one dramatic image of the turbulent ocean churning in a ship’s wake.
Individual images recall familiar precedents, such as August Sander’s workers’ portraits and the industrial typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher. On the simplest level, Sekula pictures an otherwise largely invisible network that nonetheless shapes and defines our crushingly globalized economic environment today.
More provocatively, the photographs raise questions about the global traffic in camera images themselves — in what gets seen and represented and what doesn’t (not to mention why). And by default they fold into the equation the international traffic in art, where at any given moment tens of thousands of objects and people are in global circulation. The show is modest, but the issues aren’t.