A visit to Pier 24 Photography Gallery

Reception Desk. Pier 24 Photography

Back in March I attended the SF PhotoAlliance portfolio review here in San Francisco. One of the reviewers I chose was Christopher McCall. He is the Director of the Pilara Foundation, and that was all I really knew about him and it. Even though Chris was kind of hungover from a Grateful Dead birthday party the night before, we had a pleasant talk, and I learned a lot about what was about to happen on the San Francisco waterfront.

The Pilara Family Foundation has opened Pier 24 Photography, the largest exhibition spaces in the US dedicated solely to contemporary photography. But this is actually an understatement as my visit to to gallery today revealed. It is located on Pier 24 directly under the western end of the Bay Bridge. There really isn’t any indication it exists on the outside. I walked under an arch that said Pier 24 and arrived at an intercom box. There is no sign. While admittance is free, you do need an appointment to visit. The gallery only admits 20 people at a time, and without an appointment, there is no chance of getting in. This bugged me a bit at first, but once I was buzzed in, my mindset was completely changed.

Gallery view. Pier 24 Photography

The space is huge – 28,000 square feet in all. It might seem cavernous at first, but the way the space has been sectioned into intimate galleries of various size, it actually has a very welcoming feel. The lighting is subdued – the walls white, the floors concrete and gray. I had to sign in at the front desk, and a short introduction to the space was given by one of the young staff. She explained that none of the work is labeled with either the photographer name or titles of the works. This was to allow the viewer an opportunity to simply live with the images without the clutter of description or reputation. I take slight exception to this. While I often knew who it was I was looking at just by familiarity, I also found myself guessing instead of just looking. It was a bit distracting. There is a catalog available at the desk that you can walk around with, but because of the way it is laid out, I found myself constantly paging through to find the proper place – a minor quibble.

Diane Arbus section of Pier 24 Photography

The more I walked through the space, the more I was grateful for the 20 person limit. Every gallery section was virtually peopleless and very quiet. I could stand in front of a work and really experience it for as long as I liked. The images attached to this blog entry are no lie. It is this empty. Mary and I visited the Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park just yesterday, and were constantly jockeying for position, craning necks, and dealing with masses of people. There is none of that here.

Thomas Struth area. Pier 24 Gallery

In many cases, it is the sheer number of images on view for each photographer that is so impressive. On display now is work from the collection of Randi and Bob Fisher. It encompasses the work of many canonical twentieth century American photographers. From Man Ray to Misrach and Stieglitz to Strand, each artist has a sizable room – sometimes several – to showcase their work. I have never seen so may Eggleston’s in one place before. There were three rooms full of Walker Evans work. When I saw New Topographics recently at SFMOMA, Bernd and Hilla Becher were represented by a rather small sampling of their typologies. Here on display at Pier 24 were probably ten sets of typologies – several consisting of 30 large images. This is the way the work should be seen. In a place this size, there is room for the monumental. There are several 10 ft. tall Andreas Gursky prints in one room, while another has the giant work of Thomas Struth. Still, there is room for the larger works of Richard Misrach and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

If you love photography and plan to be in San Francisco, this is a must do kind of thing. But plan ahead as reservations can be difficult to get. Right now, it looks like mid December before there is much open. Each person needs to make an individual reservation. The time slots run for two hours each. This was just right for me. I had enough time to see everything and then return to a couple of favorites without being exhausted. For me it was to Eggleston. The current show is up through February.

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