Pier 24 museum in San Francisco – a photographic education

Over the weekend I went to see the Pier 24 exhibit space in San Francisco. It has only been open for a year or so (the current exhibit is their third ever, I believe). It represents a novel approach to the museum experience in general and photography exhibits in particular. The facility itself is located in one of the old waterfront warehouses along the Embarcadero (thus the name), directly beneath the Oakland Bay Bridge. The interior is divided up into roughly 20 rooms. Admission is FREE, but by appointment only. They allow twenty people at a time for a two hour block, so your distractions during  your visit are minimized. Another way they minimize distractions is by having NO wall text – the floor plan flyer you get upon entering has the only labels for the exhibits, consisting of the photographers names who are hung in a given room. Absolutely maddening if you’re not familiar with everyone in a given room, but at the same time, quite liberating because it frees you from having to accept the curator’s “authoritative” context. The current exhibition, up through December 16, is entitled simply “HERE”. The theme is work that in some way connects to San Francisco – either taken in or near the Bay area or by photographers who called it home. Work exhibited spans the range from 19th century mammoth plate collodion images printed on albumen paper by Eadward Muybridge and Carleton Watkins to 20th century Modernist masters like Edward Weston and Ruth Bernhard to color mural prints by Richard Misrach and Larry Sultan, and even a five-minute video clip of the car chase scene in Bullitt with Steve McQueen.

Much of the work on display was not to my taste – I don’t like what has been derisively labeled “hedge fund wallpaper” by some New York gallerists referring to recent deadpan posed-snapshot color mural prints. However, there was enough early imagery to satisfy my inner antiquarian, and now that I’ve seen enough of that kind of work, I’m starting to appreciate it for what it is. I still wouldn’t accept money to hang in my house, but one example finally struck home as to what was going on in the photograph. There was a room with a series of VERY large color prints by Anthony Hernandez of vacant interiors. On the literal surface, they’re incredibly ugly, showing abandoned and/or ruined interior spaces with industrial carpets, missing drop ceilings, and junky furniture. One thing that did catch my eye though was the use of color itself. If you stepped back and looked through a defocused eye, the images became all about abstract color fields, geometric forms, and intersecting planes.  The graphic abstract geometry creates a contrast with and tension against the literal detail of the photographic image, making your brain switch back and forth between the two characteristics of the image – the texture of the purple carpet, the gray popcorn ceiling and the white-washed faux-wood paneling in the hallway against the receding, intersecting planes of colors converging on a vanishing point in the far rear of the image. I think it’s this kind of tension in a photograph that has too often repelled me from post-modernist photography – it’s too easy to be fixated on and distracted by the details and not see the whole picture. I still don’t like the “posed deadpan snapshot”, whether it’s printed 4″x6″ or 40″ x 60″. But at least I can start to “get” another genre.

For more information about Pier 24, visit their website: http://www.pier24.org


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