Google Pier 24. For the biggest contemporary photography space in the country, you will find it to have a very modest virtual presence, flying low under the radar. Even its name — the space is located on the renovated pier 24 along the Embarcadero — suggests a decisive non-flashiness. Indeed, Pier 24, which houses the world-caliber photography collection of San Francisco local investor and art patron Andy Pilara, continually escapes classification. It is not a museum (no explanatory wall text, free admission with an appointment), or a gallery (nothing’s for sale), or even quite an institution (though educational programming is forthcoming), but a place attempting to carve out a new model for displaying and viewing photographs.
This month, Pier 24 mounts their third show since opening their doors to the public over a year ago. In keeping with their non-flowery-meets-open-ended philosophy, it is titled simply, Here. As you may have deduced, the sole criterion of the exhibition is the Bay Area. Like the space that houses it, the show is huge, showcasing work made by thirty-four photographers. The theme of locality is porous enough to include images made by photographers who live and work here as well as those just passing through. Ultimately, it adds up to a vast portrait of the Bay Area’s unique cultural and natural landscape.
Castro Theatre — Hiroshi Sugimoto
There are many different Bay Areas represented in Here. Jim Goldberg’s manic world of impoverished street kids from his 1985 Raised by Wolves project, Eadweard Muybrdge’s 360 Panorama from Telegraph Hill taken right before the 1906 earthquake, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s glowing Castro Theater, and Richard Misrach’s eight-by-ten foot photographs of Oakland after the devastation of the 1991 fire, to name a few of the over seven hundred photographs on view.
Oakland Hills after the 1991 fire — Richard Misrach
Homeland — Larry Sultan
And at the center of it all is the unconquerable influence of Larry Sultan, whose Homeland series is on view for the first time ever in the United States. Sultan’s final body of work before passing away in 2009, Homeland features Guatemalan day laborers, whom Sultan hired to act as subjects. Placed in sweeping suburban and rural landscapes, and bathed in west-coast golden light (most of the images were taken near the photographer’s Marin home), the workers appear at once regal, self-possessed, and entirely detached. Homeland is striking and complicated, and proves that even after his death, Sultan guides our critical, and compassionate, vision.
For all of its sweeping diversity within theme, the show’s major oversight is a lack of female photographers and photographers of color. By my count, there are only three women on view (Dorothea Lange, Catherine Wagner and Katy Grannan), making the ratio of male-to-female a very low 11:1. There is also a surprising dearth of Hispanic photographers (Anthony Hernandez is the sole representative); as one of the four majority-minority states in the country, the show does itself a disservice by not accounting for the broader, continually shifting demographic of the region through the eyes of non-white artists.
Above all, Here is an impressive look around, an unparalleled survey of the Bay Area. It’s all inside: the construction of the Bay Bridge, the counter-culture hippies who occupied Telegraph Avenue in the 1970s, even Steve McQueen’s famous chase scene through the winding San Francisco streets from the 1968 film Bullitt.
What a place, unlike any other.
Here runs through December 16, 2011 at Pier 24 in San Francisco. For more information visit pier24.org.
All images by Tom O’Connor, courtesy Pier 24 Photography.