By Amber Schadewald I Photos by Lisa Wiseman
Nestled in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, Pier 24 juts out over the gorgeous icy blue waters in a renovated 1930’s warehouse, quietly alluding to what is quite possibly the largest space in the world dedicated to displaying the art of the photograph.
The gallery opened in March 2010 by Andrew Pillara, an investment advisor who discovered his love of “paper and silver nitrate” after seeing a Diane Arbus exhibit at SFMOMA. His interest quickly grew into a personal collection of 2,000-plus pieces, and a search for a space that would allow him to share the images with the public led him to Pier 24, a historic building that had been uninhabited for over three decades. There were holes in the floor and pigeons everywhere, but Pillara saw potential.
Working with architect Douglas Bernan, the historic building was redesigned to glorify photographs with dramatic lighting, towering walls and remarkable site lines. Resource spoke with Pier 24 Director Chris McCall to find out more about the gallery’s unique offerings.
Who’s who at Pier 24 and what’s your role as the gallery’s director?
We’re a mom and pop operation in a non-profit form. The space is primarily run by a team of volunteers, Seth [Curcio, program manager] and myself, meaning we all wear a lot of hats throughout the week. We do a lot of collaborative work with members of the photo community, like Sandy Phillips at SFMOMA and Jim Goldberg at the California College of the Arts.
What were you doing before Pier 24?
First and foremost I am a photographer, mostly portraiture and color photography. I like printing onto different objects, like brown-paper grocery store bags, and I did a lot with Polaroids before they started to disappear. Leading up to the Pier, I was teaching photography at a school here in the Bay Area. I was preparing to open my own gallery when someone suggested I meet with Andrew Pillara. We began talking about options and stayed in touch. A little over a year after meeting him I went over to the space and he offered me the job to run the gallery.
What were the original goals of the gallery?
There has always been an educational goal: to provide a space where classes can bring their students. As an educator myself, I know that students are generally exposed to these photographs only in book form. You don’t get to see prints. Our last exhibition saw over ninety classes, and twenty classes have already come through in the first six weeks of our current show.
Why has the gallery decided to omit labels, titles and artist names from the walls?
We went through a lot of long discussions about this with friends and colleagues of ours. We understand that initially it can be frustrating—usually people have one of two responses: either it really bothers them because we have been programmed to look at work in a certain way, or it excites them because it frees them to look at work and engage [with the images] without feeling forced to read a small paragraph. Information is provided for any patron in our gallery guides.
Why do you personally prefer the lack of wall text?
I went to a show at the MET a few years ago and I watched how people engaged with the work, which was a collection of several, very rare, hand-colored prints. One piece in particular had two paragraphs of writing next to it. People would walk up and, without even looking at the photo, spend thirty seconds to a minute reading. Then they would look at the photo for about one second, walk away and start reading about the next piece. By eliminating text in our space, people have to trust their instincts and really spend time looking at and engaging with the photographs.
Have you noticed if people move then about Pier 24’s spaces in a different way?
Yes. People who wouldn’t usually come together will start talking about the work. They spend more time lingering, talking and moving through the space because there are no specific markers instructing the way they should be engaged.
The gallery boasts an impressive 28,000 square feet. How does Pier 24 utilize such a large amount of space?
We’ve broken up the space by creating a series of galleries, large and small, some more intimate with [lower] ceilings. It still has a warehouse feel, and the range in room sizes really opens up what type of work we can present. We can accommodate large-scale images without overwhelming our twelve-foot walls; the work doesn’t feel cramped or forced.
How would you categorize the bodies of work shown at Pier 24? Is the gallery inclined to show particular narratives?
“Bodies of work” is a good way to categorize what we do. The first show was our collection, the Pillara Foundation Collection. The second examined different artists from Randi and Bob Fisher’s collection, and the third is concentrated on Bay Area photography. What we typically do is show complete bodies of work in one room, like Garry Winogrand’s The Animals, Lee Friedlander’s Little Screens and Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust. We don’t just show a selection, but a complete portfolio.
Is there an educational aspect you are trying to portray by hanging an entire collection?
We want to show that these photographers are not just producing one iconic photograph. The process of photography is challenging for people to understand and showing a full collection better expresses how a photographer works for years at a time, editing and sequencing. The photographs are just as important as the process it took to make them.
Andrew Pillara has said that Pier 24 is not a museum or gallery, but an experience. What does this mean to you?
It’s the idea of providing a space that is quiet and contemplative. You’re not in a gallery with hundreds of people—you often find yourself in a gallery by yourself. You’re not being watched and there is not a lot of people watching to be done.
Why is this kind of quiet, explorative experience so important today?
We are constantly being bombarded with images, but we’re not often afforded a chance to come into a quiet space, un-mediated by any device. You don’t see people checking their email in our gallery like at other institutions. [You] don’t get this a lot in this day and age. The door shuts at the Pier, people leisurely walk around and look at great artwork. That is the experience of the Pier. It’s set up for you to break away from computers, billboards and cell phones. That experience is created by the way the space is set up and run. It’s hard to capture in words. It’s something you just have to experience to understand.
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