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Large and small disasters (Islas Cies and Bueu 12/20/02)



Allan Sekula

United States of America

15 Jan 1951 - 10 Aug 2013


This sequence of three images is from Allan Sekula’s ‘Black tide/ Marea negra’ portfolio, which responds to the environmental disaster that hit the Galician coast, in northwest Spain, in 2002. A crippled tanker carrying 75 million litres of oil split in half, causing massive environmental and economic damage. In December 2002, at the invitation of the Barcelona newspaper ‘La Vanguardia’, Sekula travelled to Galicia to document the crisis. Sekula produced a sequence of documentary photographs which are less conventionally dramatic and more meditative than typical photo-journalism. The photographs focus on the beleaguered coastal topography, the physical properties of the invading oil, and the Sisyphean labours of the volunteers who battled the black tide. They include panoramic views along with photographs that have the quality of informal snapshots. The photographs are accompanied by a text, ‘Black tide: fragments for an opera’. This incomplete libretto combines Galician folktales with Greek tragedy and recalls Sekula’s beginnings as a performance artist in the late 1960s.

The Los Angeles-based artist has also been an influential photographic theorist and critic who has written persuasively on the politics of representation and of documentary photography. Essays such as ‘On the invention of photographic meaning’ 1975, ‘Dismantling modernism, reinventing documentary’ 1976 and ‘The traffic in photographs’ 1981 put Sekula at the forefront of thinking about the documentary form and its role in social practice. Sekula’s documentary photographs are founded in a Marxist analysis of labour and trade and their transformation within the global economy. One of his best-known works, ‘Fish story’ 1995, documents changes to the fishing sector in American ports. Like ‘Black tide’, it critiques our systems of consumption and the impact of globalisation on local industries and livelihoods.

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007




Media category


Materials used

Cibachrome photograph




114.5 x 73.0 cm image; 129.5 x 69.5 x 4.0 cm frame

Signature & date

Not signed. Not dated.


Gift of Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth 2003


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Allan Sekula

Works in the collection


Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

Referenced in 2 publications


Bronwyn Clark-Coolee, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'Not 'simply' anything', pg.266-287, Sydney, 2007, 266 (colour illus.), 270, 287 (colour illus.).

Allan Sekula, Cultura, 'Marea negra: fragmentos para una opera', pg.2-6, Brazil, 12 Feb 2003, 7 (illus.).