Surveying the landscape of photography in San Diego is more complex than you would imagine, especially for a relatively small city. It is, however, filled with sweet rewards. A big shout out is due to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s exhibition Secrets and Lies which includes a hearty showing of photography from their permanent collection. In a city where we often look to MOPA for inspiring photographs (more on their summer exhibitions soon!) it was an unexpected delight to stroll into this thoughtful permanent collection show and see many of the treasures MCASD has in their vault. A short list of notable artists included in the exhibition reads like a who’s who in the world of contemporary photography: Tina Barney, Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, Lorna Simpson, Larry Sultan, and San Diego’s own conceptual / performance artist / photographer Richard Lou.
However, one piece in the exhibition took center stage, literally and figuratively—a 1972 tour de force by Allan Sekula—an artist who successfully balanced the unique disciplines of photography, writing, and filmmaking as few others can or could. Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence was part homage, part surveillance, and an undeniably masterful connection to the history of photography. Shot in San Diego (itself a fun fact) the power of this installation went far beyond its regional specificity: it held the power to transport viewers through time and space, into the mind of a still photographer and filmmaker. The individual photographs penetrate the minds of workers leaving the Convair facility, crossing up and over a fast moving stretch of Pacific Highway. But the real magic of this work lay in it’s scale and installation, expertly paced in a room who’s physical layout (an infinite loop with two openings) which gave a cadence for viewers the precise amount of time to roam from one image to the next. The images themselves depict work-weary individuals ascending stairs, whose faces range from indifference to bewilderment and ire, faced with the presence of an outsider pointing a camera at each one.
The work was powerful on a number of levels, one of which being the proximity to the location where it was shot: barely a mile or two away, but removed from time by 42 revolutionary years. The installation rewards the viewer through a series of brief interactions, recalling Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s How Small the World Is or Harry Callahan’s Highland Park, Michigan from 1941. Made by a filmmaker and presented like a film strip, we can’t escape the connections to Edward Muybridge’s Motion Studies or Etienne-Jules Marey’s early work on motion, both of which were instrumental in the birth of cinema. Unlike each of these masterworks, however, Sekula’s images involve the photographer standing squarely in front of his subjects, looking them in the eye as they engage (or shy away from) the stare of his camera. Looking at each image we’re transported to a time gone by: factory workers carrying steel lunchboxes, newspapers carrying messages of world events, watches, hats, and other articles that look through time into an era when surveillance was not a daily part of our lives.
The installation is captivating. It has no start and no end, signaling a metaphor for the lives of the individuals we find ourselves staring into the eyes of. Interestingly, these micro vignettes hold the power to dislocate a viewer so wholly and in a relatively short amount of time. Given the location where the images were made, the proximity of that location to the museum, the separation of time (but not space) to these images, and the cadence of the installation as a whole, it was startling to feel a very real sense of dislocation brought on by an engrossing work of art. Sekula successfully tapped the power of installation and the historical roots of photography (intentionally or otherwise) fully immersing the viewer in a transformative experience.
Kudos to MCASD for sharing this (and other) amazing photographic treasures with the public. What a gift to have them in the community.