At the Intersection of Flick and Sekula
While both Robbert Flick and Allan Sekula have worked here on and off since the ‘70s, the two artists have rarely intersected professionally. Flick, a USC professor, has long concentrated on Los Angeles cityscapes while Sekula, who teaches at California Institute of the Arts, has been drawn to the region’s shore and ports.
Nevertheless, when they were selected as 1996-97 scholars at the Getty Center’s Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Flick’s and Sekula’s professional interests and pathways collided. As they went about their scholarly studies during their residence at the Getty, participating in assorted discussions and field trips focusing on Los Angeles, they discovered a shared passion about the great changes in the city’s industrial landscape.
The result is “Port and Corridor: Working Sites in Los Angeles,” an exhibition that opens this weekend at the Research Institute; the show includes both new and earlier work by the two artists about their shared interests. Flick uses a video camera and Sekula uses a still camera, but both chronicle life in southeast Los Angeles, particularly the industrial corridor along Alameda Street, from downtown to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro.
Both photographers “created work that wasn’t geographic yet showed a Los Angeles that we don’t normally see,” says the show’s curator, Moira Kenney, project associate for Local and Comparative Research at the Getty. “We drive the freeways and see southeast Los Angeles at 70 miles an hour.”
Kenney calls these images “a conceptual map.”
“It’s not about how to get from one place to another,” she says. “It’s different from the maps that we construct both through our daily experiences--living, driving and working in the city--and through the other sorts of visual documentation like movies and newspapers. Who better to tell these stories than artists?”
Flick’s largest piece, “Along Alameda Street Looking East, From Chinatown to San Pedro,” is composed of hundreds of sequential still frames taken from an hourlong video he made driving along a 30-mile segment of Alameda Street. Each of five 40-by-48-inch panels includes 400 frames, starting with a traffic signal at the corner of College and Alameda in the first frame of the first piece and concluding at Channel Street, near San Pedro. (His unedited video is also included in the exhibition).
Combining familiar and unfamiliar images, abandoned buildings and palm trees, Flick’s 2,000 frames are unified by a gray, cloudy sky. The photos, somewhat reminiscent of Ed Ruscha’s 1966 book “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” capture such landmarks as Union Station, but mostly feature anonymous trucks, cars and buildings.
Dutch-born Flick, 58, says the Alameda Street panels and other works in the Getty exhibition are the outgrowth of 30 years of work. Moving from single frames to sequential images, he has also gone from walking the city’s streets with a still camera to driving them with his video camera. When he saw what a Hi-8 video camera could do, he says, and took advantage of digital media, it all came together for him.
Before shooting, Flick begins with “a very close scrutiny of the area” either on foot or by car, checking out his sites at different times of the day and week. Although he traveled Alameda three times, he says, the material included here comes from just one shoot taken on Martin Luther King Day in 1997. Because there were fewer trucks, he could drive more slowly and the camera’s view was less obstructed.
Inside his 1991 silver gray Isuzu Trooper, Flick mounts his small, Hi-8 Sony on a tripod; the camera faces out the side window, recording roadside images parallel to the movement of the car. There is a small monitor over the car’s speedometer from which Flick stops, starts and controls the movements of the camera. “Whatever happens, happens. It’s like a performance. If I stop for a stop sign or a car accident, the camera keeps going.
“I always had a sense of Alameda as a heavily industrial spine,” the artist says, “but what surprised me in terms of this specific itinerary was the distribution of signage and [how] liquor and smoking advertisements increased as the income seemed to be less. I was struck by the range of industrial decay and the brand-new adjacent industrial parks, as well as the extraordinary ironies of finding wrecking yards followed by used car parts sales followed by vast inventories of brand new cars.”
Flick’s photographs also document container cranes at the harbor, leading easily into the close-ups of those cranes that populate many of the Sekula photographs in the show. Sekula, 47, grew up in San Pedro and watched the transformation of the port during the mid-'60s when he was in high school and, after working here and elsewhere over the years, returned to document that change in the 1990s.
“Shipbuilding and the idea of the sea began disappearing from people’s consciousness in the late 20th century,” says Sekula. “There’s a fantasy that it’s not a changing part of the contemporary world. The prevailing attitude toward the sea is nostalgic, but the fact is that it’s an absolutely critical medium for transnational global economies.”
Since the ‘60s, he explains, huge cargo containers have standardized cargo movement and made global traffic easier; virtually every world port has been affected. Trucks, ships and trains keep the cargo flowing and a key Los Angeles artery will be the ongoing Alameda Corridor, which Sekula describes as a massive $2 billion infrastructure improvement project that will radically increase the volume of cargo moving inbound and outbound from the ports. Now under construction, the corridor largely follows the path of the existing Alameda Street, adding a sunken trench alongside it through such cities as Huntington Park, Southgate, Lynwood and Compton.
Much as Flick chronicles those cities and conveyances from the street, Sekula shoots them from the piers, and particularly two huge new piers--Piers 300 and 400--that extend from Terminal Island, near Long Beach. The combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach constitute the largest port in the Americas already, says Sekula, and the two new piers will greatly increase the cargo volume.
“Some parts of the port economy have atrophied to the point of virtual disappearance--such as shipbuilding and fish canning--but other parts--cargo movement and the cruise ship industry-- have grown astronomically,” says Sekula. “If the port were a body, some parts would be withering while others would look like they’d been to Gold’s Gym. It’s a case for the chiropractor. It’s out of balance.”
The result, says Sekula, is that Los Angeles has gone from being a major manufacturing city to becoming a global transport city. “If you follow the path that Robbert photographed,” he says, “driving down Alameda is very instructive because you can see the residue of this quite vigorous manufacturing economy.”
Sekula photographs abandoned workers much as he photographs the containers, ships and trucks. Welder Mason Davis, Sekula says, “represents the actual economic plight of black American men of his generation in the southern part of Los Angeles. Here’s a guy who is a trade unionist, had a skilled trade, but with the closing down of the L.A. shipyards, he’s only picking up a temporary job.”
Flick’s pictures in the exhibition were made primarily during his year at the Getty, while Sekula’s work sweeps in several years that essentially bracket the Getty year. Both men create artworks made of consecutive frames, creating sequential images. Flick edits by leaving some video frames out while Sekula essentially constructs his diptychs and triptychs in the camera as he carefully plans the order of his shots to align them thematically.
What the two artists have in common, says Sekula, “is some idea that photography is not an art of isolated, organically closed, self-contained single images. I think we are both driven by the notion of montage of one kind or another and by our interests in the descriptive capacities of photographs, although I think we take that in very different directions.
“The really big difference is that Robbert is driving by, and I’m walking and talking. So for him, the car is part of the apparatus, part of the machine that makes the image. For me, getting out of the car is a way into the scene. . . . My work is very pedestrian; I hang around a long time.”
Both men continue to do related work. Sekula plans to document the ports of Seattle and Tacoma next year, while Flick is deeply immersed in constructing additional visual sequences from the 120 hours of videotape he collected during the Getty Scholar year.
Flick, who established USC’s digital Matrix lab in 1991, also will contribute some of this work to USC’s Information Systems for Los Angeles, an extensive database dealing with Southern California history. Stressing, too, that his extended documentation of Southern California is ongoing, he adds: “What I’m looking for is a way to visualize how the new Los Angeles looks.”
“PORT AND CORRIDOR: WORKING SITES IN LOS ANGELES--PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBBERT FLICK AND ALLAN SEKULA,” Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities,1200 Getty Center Drive. Dates: Opens this weekend. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 11.a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Ends Oct.18. Price: Admission is free. Parking is $5; parking reservations are required. Phone: (310) 440-7300.