THE GOOD NEWS. In the spring of 2010 a preeminent exhibition space opened in San Francisco. Exclusively devoted to photography, it displays selections from the world-class Pilara Family Collection, a repository of over 2000 prints. Considering that the collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive in private hands, it is astonishing to learn that Andy Pilara, an investment banker, only began to amass his holdings in 2003.
T he collection spans a wide range: vintage and contemporary, documentary and fine art, digital and film based, intimate and grandiose work, little-known and renowned photographers. The breadth and depth are impressive. Many photographers are represented and there is extensive focus on select individuals. Further distinction derives from the number of iconic works as well as entire series, such as Lee Friedlander’s Little Screams, Richard Misrach’s Telegraph 3 am, and Garry Winogrand’s Animals.
Highlights include photographs by Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruth Bernhard, Harry Callahan, Larry Clark, Imogen Cunningham, Rineke Dijkstra, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Kota Ezawa, Robert Frank, Jim Goldberg, Nan Goldin, Katy Grannan, Lewis Hine, Peter Hugar, Dorothea Lange, Zwelethu Mithethwa, Bill Owens, Irving Penn, Sebastian Salgado, August Sander, Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth, Thomas Struth, Larry Sultan, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jeff Wall, and Gillian Wearing.
Pier 24 is located on San Francisco’s Embarcadero in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. It is a vast space (28,000 sq. Ft), formerly an abandoned, dilapidated storage warehouse. In its transformed state, the building retains an industrial, barebones character.
The setting is loosely divided into galleries arranged in irregular sequences. The presentational mode varies from room to room, at times featuring work by a single photographer, and in other instances groupings organized by subject matter, style, theme, or historical period. Considering that each exhibition includes about 300 works it is not surprising to find a mix of captivating displays, enlightening juxtapositions, confounding combinations, and disconcerting arrangements.
The Inaugural Exhibition (March 16—July 16, 2010) was an eye-opening introduction to Pier 24 and the Pilara collection. It set the stage for a schedule of long-term showings, primarily comprising selections from the Pilara permanent collection. The second exhibition, From the Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher (September 16, 2010—February 28, 2011) was an exception. It showcased photographs from another San Francisco collection, which is more than equal in its diversity, quality, and quantity to Pilara’s.
Thematic exhibitions followed the first two. Here (May 23—December 17, 2011) featured Bay Area photographers and images of San Francisco. It encompassed an expanse from the dramatic landscapes of Carleton E. Watkins to the panoramas of Eadweard Muybridge, the seductive images of Edward Weston, and the street scenes of Stephan Shore. The current exhibition, About Face (May 15, 2012—February 28, 2013) centers on the tradition of portrait-based photography and diverse approaches to portraiture. Complementing the work of individual artists are the Retratos Pintados, hand-painted family portraits from Brazil, and 300 mugshots from early 20th century America.
THE BAD NEWS. The stated intention of Pier 24 is to provide “an environment in which to experience and quietly contemplate photography . . . to advance the creation, scholarship and understanding of the photographic medium.” Though this mission is admirable, its implementation effectively negates the mission. There are no object labels with names, dates, titles and no text panels with significant contextual details or enlightenment about innovative processes. As a result, the lack of substantive information that might enrich the viewing experience only diminishes it. Visitors have no choice but to view the Pilara’s incredible collection in a vacuum.
The only guide for visitors is a slick brochure containing a few illustrations, a brief overview, and a gallery map. Unfortunately, the map is less helpful than exceedingly problematic. Gallery numbers are linked to the names of photographers, but rooms with multiple names do not indicate which works are by which photographers. Moreover, the space is labyrinthian. Its layout has interconnecting or detached rooms and open areas with erratic paths of entry and egress. Consequently, the map and layout only intensify the frustration deriving from the lack of nformation.
It’s not unusual to see visitors walking around in frustration. An excessive amount of time is spent deciphering the map. Rather than a contemplative experience, many viewers are preoccupied with trying to recall or speculate about the identity of the photographers. Without even a modicum of information, conversations are limited to “I like” “I don’t like” responses.
A few interns rove through the galleries as aides meant to answer questions and offer assistance. Although their presence might be an asset, their knowledge is skin deep. It relies on cursory data contained in the binders they carry, which have been prepared by the staff, not themselves.
The alternative to no information is not didactic texts or excessive signage. Inconspicuous lists with minimal data might easily be affixed to the entrance wall of each gallery. Or a portable data page could be available for visitors to use within each gallery. Either of these options would greatly enhance a visitor’s experience.
Having been tutored by Jeffrey Fraenkel, a well-versed photography dealer (Fraenkel Gallery), Pilara has had the benefit of biographical, historical, and stylistic learning of the type that would be a welcome addition to exhibitions at Pier 24. Some photography specialists—museum curators, scholars and gallerists—also have extensive knowledge, yet even they would profit from nominal labels.
Without question, in a private venue the proprietor has the right to do as he pleases. However, Pilara’s own mission statement of advancing the experience of photography and the understanding of the medium does not cohere with existing modes of exhibition display.
Pier 24 is a welcome addition to San Francisco’s flourishing stature in the international art world. It would be unfortunate if visitors cannot take full advantage of the incomparable resource provided by the Pilara collection.
Pier 24 is open Monday through Thursday. Visits are scheduled by appointment only. Appointments are limited to 20 people at a time and last 2 hours (10:00-12:00, 1:00-3:00, 3:15-5:15). Register for an appointment at www.pier24.org. Admission is fee of charge.
Illustration captions. Selections from Pilara Foundation Collection. Zwelethu Mthethwa—Sugar Cane Series, 2003. Mikhael Subotsky & Patrick Waterhouse—Portrait 16, Ponte City Johannesburg, 2008; Portrait 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Portrait 13, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008.