Everyone is a photographer now, and that’s wonderful. We all document moments both important and mundane, scenes both amusing and stunning, creating a colorful whirlwind that turns into an extra layer of the fabric of life. Step into the serenely industrial galleries at Pier 24 in San Francisco, though, and you’ll be reminded that photography can also be art.
A huge variety of photographic prints make up the current exhibition (“A Sense of Place,” open through May 2014), but it’s the gallery space itself that is most intriguing.
Pier 24 is a private gallery-cum-museum that was opened in 2010 by a rich San Francisco investment advisor, originally to showcase his personal collection. Since then, exhibits have supplemented those works with custom-commissioned pieces and prints on loan from traditional museums.
Only 20 people are allowed inside the dozen rooms at any given time (you must reserve your two-hour spot online in advance; it’s totally free), so you’re mostly alone with the architecture and the images.
Solitude and unobstructed lines of sight mean you can look at things from near unlimited angles. Every step forward, every craning of the neck upward or crouching down to inspect something small has the potential to create a new view, one that might itself be considered art. Pier 24 is mostly about the art of looking.
Formerly a dilapidated warehouse, the space was constructed to mimic the underside of the Bay Bridge right above it, and the steel beams struck at obtuse angles across the ceiling form great contrasts with the sleek gallery walls and square frames below.
Stepping off the sunny, busy Embarcadero into the galleries is somewhat of a thrill, like you’ve discovered a secret passageway to a hidden cave. Since photography is allowed, and even encouraged, you can spelunk to your heart’s content.
Sense of Place leads off with a quote from William Carlos Williams, the one that starts “First we have to see. Or first we have to be taught to see.” It’s appropriate, but his most famous phrase is also applicable: “No ideas but in things.”
No titles, attributions, explanations or placards of any kind are found next to the mounted prints. You need to flip through the magazine-like catalog to discover that Brazil’s Lucia Koch is responsible for the orange rectangle hanging next to the front room, and that it is not a corridor but instead the interior of a spaghetti box.
I do not know of any gallery or museum in the world that is more of a paean to photography. But you do not have to be a photographer to appreciate it.
Great thanks goes to Leah Reich, who told me about the space and even made my reservation on her iPhone as we walked away from Hapa Ramen at the Ferry Building. If you are in San Francisco, or will find yourself there, don’t miss your chance for a visit.