San Francisco's Pier 24 is Largest, Most Exclusive Photography Gallery in the U.S.

Posted by David Ozanich — 25 Feb 2011

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San Francisco is full of cool things (including, today, its first chance for snow in 35 years), but until now I was unaware of Pier 24 which the Wall Street Journal describes as "the largest exhibition space in the [United States] dedicated exclusively to photography."

It seems 69 year old Andy Pilara, an investment banker, has remodeled an all-but-abandoned 28,000 square foot warehouse under the Bay Bridge and turned it into a massive gallery. He bought his first Diane Arbus print in 2003 and has since amassed over 2,000 photographs taken from the 1830s onward which form the basis of the collection.

But there's a catch. Only 60 people are allowed to visit on any given day (those days being Monday through Thursday). In fact, they won't even open the sliding glass doors for you to enter until your appointment has been confirmed via intercom. It all seems very 007! Unconcerned with finances, Pilara pays for everything himself and admission is free. Once you get past their strict door policy, what will you find inside?

Visitors pretty much have the place to themselves. Mr. Pilara and his associates want viewers to have a "quiet and contemplative" encounter with the usually small, most often black-and-white, typically intimate photographs on display--the polar opposite of the mob scenes at the money-making blockbusters at other museums.


There are no wall labels, which can be off-putting if you haven't mastered the history of modern photography. A minimal catalog is available for each show. But Mr. Pilara would prefer that you "just look." Too many museum visitors, he believes, spend more time looking at labels than at art.

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Currently on view is a show culled from the collection of Bob Fisher, son of The Gap founder:

There are 80 [Walker] Evans photographs (including three Vicksburg street scenes) from 1926 to 1974 in the show, in three adjacent galleries. They reach a peak with six of the 62 photos Evans published in James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which grew out of a Fortune magazine assignment the two were given in 1936 to document the lives of Alabama tenant farmers. Evans was always alert to the human dimension of the ordinary world around him, in Chicago, New England, New York and Havana--but nowhere more than in the American deep South.


With Evans as his model, and his own taste and Mr. Fraenkel as his guides, Mr. Fisher generally confines his purchases to great black-and-white images by American photographers that have a documentary (rather than a primarily aesthetic) goal. This has led him--like Mr. Pilara--to collect, and display in some depth, the work of Robert Adams, Arbus, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand. He broke his rule against color for William Eggleston, who travels around the country catching ordinary, offbeat people and places in unexpected compositions while keeping his eye out for surprising oranges and reds.


Much more about the collection and the museum in the WSJ. Information on visiting Pier 24 can be found at their website.

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