HERE.October 1, 2011
The transformation of Pier 24 from an industrial warehouse to an upscale photography gallery aptly named Pier 24 Photography is immaculate. Exhibitions are free and open to the public, but the gallery requests that visitors schedule appointments in order to limit crowds and maintain a flawlessly “intimate environment.”1 The current exhibition, HERE., presents over seven hundred images spanning the San Francisco Bay Area’s distinguished photographic history. Yet in its pursuit of contemplative perfection, the gallery dilutes the nuanced layers and experimental inflection of the depicted landscapes and subcultures.
From afar, the renovated warehouse appears discreet in relation to the massive steel structure of the nearby Bay Bridge. Walking towards the front door, this powerful framing telescopes inward to a sectional view of the blue-green Bay water that is foregrounded by an alluring fragment of rusted railroad track. Once inside, the gallery host offers an exhibition guide with a somewhat vague map and list of participating artists, encouraging visitors to take advantage of the pure viewing experience instead of focusing on authorship.
Pier 24 Photography strives to present unique public exhibitions that omit interpretive wall texts and basic informational labels characteristic of art museums (that means no titles and no dates), thus enabling visitors to appreciate its breathtaking photography exhibitions on their own terms. However, thinking critically about the practice of “making things public” along the theoretical trajectories of Jürgen Habermas, Bruno Latour, and Miwon Kwon, how does this immaculate, ethereal, medium-specific architectural design and allegedly pure viewing environment translate into the inevitably stained and textured experiences of the diverse viewing public?2
When I walked through the exhibition HERE., I found many of the individual photographs to be stunning emblematic portraits of bygone and contemporary eras with exquisitely handled lighting, composition, and scale. Each of the twenty-two rooms within the gallery constitutes an exhibition unto itself, presenting either solo work or a small grouping of up to three related works.
I carefully searched for familiar places, faces, and signature styles, and rekindled my affection for work by artists like Eadweard Muybridge, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Henry Wessel, and the late Larry Sultan, whose superb Homeland (2007-2009) series deservingly anchors the show. I also experienced several artists’ work for the first time, including photographs by Todd Hido and Richard Misrach. Hido’s diffuse painterly studies of suburban night light were intriguing images of occupied, yet inactive space, while Misrach’s large format photographs cast an original perspective on iconic landscapes such as the Golden Gate Bridge, which he depicts as a miniature landmark amidst spectacular atmospheric conditions. However, the rectilinear exhibit design and absence of text—with its factual cues and emotive triggers about specific works on view—stifled rather than opened my sense of aesthetic fulfillment; simply put, I craved more.
One artist whose work managed to transgress the steady quietude of Pier 24 Photography and appease my expectations of courageous, cutting-edge, and experimental work in an exhibition of Bay Area photography was Jim Goldberg. Ephemeral sheets of looseleaf newsprint pinned to the wall, unframed and unpretentious, formed canvases for his large-scale portraits of homeless teens in San Francisco. Goldberg’s conscientious pairing of medium and image reflects the depth and duration of his work with this marginalized community. The photographs coalesce in the gallery like DIY flyers used to convey the intimacy and multiplicity of the public sphere. Newsprint is just one of several formats that Goldberg utilizes in his epic narrative series, Raised by Wolves (1989–1992). Other small-scale portraits on view are accompanied by captions that were handwritten by the very people whom he photograped. Here, the presence of text duly conveys the complex and layered subjectivity at work in documentary photography.
Yet, as it stands, the curatorial neutrality of Pier 24 Photography washes over the otherwise vibrant complexity of over seven hundred photographic works in HERE. Although, as a budding institution intent on making its collections public, Pier 24 may still find ways to develop an intimate and innovative form of exhibition. I suggest taking its cue from the work of Goldberg, engaging visitors as participating subjects in a collective debate over the photographic medium as a documentary tool that is also wrought with questions of surface, representation, bias, and truth.
HERE. is on view at Pier 24 Photography, in San Francisco, through December 16, 2011.