Let’s talk about Pier 24

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In the American landscape of exhibition spaces for photography, Pier 24 holds a somewhat unique position. Bankrolled by a very wealthy investment banker, Andy Pilara, the space has quickly turned into the darling of photographers and the press alike. “There is a fascinating air of indulgence about San Francisco’s Pier 24.” croons the BBC. “It’s the largest exhibition space in the world dedicated solely to photography, and it displays a broad range of work, including some of the medium’s most iconic, instantly recognisable images.” What you will hear, at least in public, from photographers themselves, mostly mirrors this level of adoration. It might be time to offer a different opinion.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that even though I have come to photography fairly recently, both to the making of and the writing critically about, I appear to be rather more old-fashioned than you might imagine from someone who found his feet, still however shakily, engaging with the medium. My belief that photography not just deserves but needs, if not craves, to be talked about critically to me feels to be at odds with many of the trends we are currently witnessing. But given this position is where my own development as a critic, photographer, teacher, and writer has taken me, I am going to apply what I think needs to be done to Pier 24. A place that positions itself as an equal of, let’s say, SFMOMA and that produces well-received exhibitions noted nationally and internationally deserves and asks to be treated like, well, SFMOMA.

In principle, there would be a lot to discuss, not all of which might make sense here. In part because of my personal expertise, I am going to ignore various aspects of Pier 24 that are important to some (even to me, in a more uninformed fashion), such as, for example, its business model (a non-profit working with volunteers). Instead, I want to focus on those aspects that – at least for me – are closest to some of today’s issues in or with contemporary photography.

If you are unfamiliar with the space, Pier 24 essentially is a vast space that consists of almost 20 interconnected galleries. These galleries range in size, just like those you will find in Chelsea (New York), from smallish to rather large. Admission to the space is free. You need to make an appointment, though, since the number of visitors is strictly limited so that in principle, at any given time there will only be one visitor per gallery space.

Even though the Rothko Chapel has been mentioned as an inspiration for Pier 24, the space reminds me more of a tomb or crypt in which artifacts of the present are to be deciphered by that very small group of adventurers who have gained access. This makes for a somewhat strange experience, given many of the exhibited artists certainly aren’t Rothkos. Make no mistake, if you enjoy looking at photographs on your own in a somewhat dimly lit oppressive-feeling space, this is great. If you are more like me, however, being able to take in work even in the presence of large groups, acknowledging that while being art, photography is a form of art closest to the what is in part represented by those very people around you, then there is no need for this supposedly contemplative environment. Contemplations happens in one’s head, not outside of one’s body.

Moving away from the space, one of the biggest problems Pier 24 has yet to address is the incredibly skewed representation of male and female photographers in the exhibitions. The map made for the present exhibition, Secondhand, lists 12 men and two women. The ratio of male and female photographers for the anonymous galleries, among them a selection from the Archive of Modern Conflict, is unknown. But given those galleries mostly showcase photography made in the often rather distant past, we can assume the ratio is similar. Secondhand is not the first Pier 24 exhibition suffering from this problem. In fact, it appears to be a constant there.

The history of photography has been grossly unfair to female photographers. A recognition of this fact and attempts to rectify the problem both have appeared on the scene somewhat recently. But it’s absolutely fair to say that there still is a lot of work to be done. Having as skewed a misrepresentation of the work of female photographers as has been the case at Pier 24 not only is a step in the very wrong direction, it also sends a very bad message. The “the largest exhibition space in the world dedicated solely to photography” – mostly for men? I do not want to assume that this is the idea behind the space in the mind of either Pilara or its director, Chris McCall. But if it’s not the idea, then it certainly comes across as that.

I understand that Pier 24 essentially is a showcase for Pilara’s collection (plus the collections of various other very wealthy individuals). It’s their collections, I get it. They can do whatever they want. But the moment you create a space like Pier 24 and position yourself in the world of photography the way it has been done over the past few years, it’s your responsibility to be aware of a problem like this. Having one or two or maybe three female artists in a space with almost 20 galleries in the second decade of the 21st Century is a big problem. It’s not like there are no female artists who could have easily been added to any of the exhibitions, past or present. In other words, even if historically there is less material to pick from (an assertion that I’m not sure I fully believe in, but that’s for another day), there certainly is an abundance of very strong work made by female artists today.

Speaking of abundance, Pier 24 is a place of just that. Typically, for any given exhibition, there will be displays of either the complete set of some given project, or there will be a very large selection of some photographer’s work. Needless to say, this is a photography fan’s dream, and I suspect this is in part responsible for so many people being so uncritical of Pier 24.

What’s not to love about seeing all the pictures from, say, Richard Avedon‘s The Family? For me, that’s exactly the problem, though. It’s not that I don’t want to see all those pictures, I want to be able to engage with them in a meaningful way, and often enough, the wall hangings/presentations at Pier 24 do not allow me to do that. If you have 50 or 60 photographs how do you hang them in often relatively small gallery spaces? The solution offered by Pier 24 usually steps away from what you would expect to see at a museum, where curators usually opt for a more conservative hanging, which allows the viewers to engage with individual photographs.

At Pier 24, you tend to get vast clusters or overly designed salon-style hangings, as a result of which engagement with individual photographs is made very, very hard. I have occasionally wondered whether treating the hanging of a show like a design exercise is a good idea for photography. For example, in Secondhand, there were all photographs from Melissa Catanese‘s Dive Dark Dream Slow, a truly marvelous group of vernacular photographs. Those were hung in two rows, with framed imaged alternating up and down from two lines that delineated the rows. I was later told the up and down reflected the spreads in the book. Well, OK, but an exhibition on the wall is not the same as a book. You don’t engage with photographs that hang on a wall the way you do in a book. So the install was not just overly designy, for me it completely failed to do the work any justice. If I want to look at the book, I look at the book. If I get to see the work on the wall, I expect to see something that translates the experience the book conveys – the experience here meaning not seeing one photo after another, but rather the overall feel created in one’s mind.

I am aware that the exhibitions at Pier 24 are hung with very specific ideas in mind. But I do think that more often than not it just doesn’t work. Honestly, I hated going into room with lot of August Sander photographs a few years ago (hung in two or three rows if memory serves me right). I love Sander’s photographs, but I really don’t want to see them displayed as if they are merely stamps in an album. And that’s what many of the individual displays that make up the larger exhibitions feel like: “Let us show you all the picture we have amassed by this or that guy.” That’s not only bad for the work on display, it’s just gratuitous, and not in a good way. It does not do the photography on display any justice.

Essentially, we’re talking about the curatorial approach here. I’m sure museum curators or people who went through a program teaching curatorial studies will have very specific ideas. Some time ago, I made it clear what I think of the kind of fare presented by American photography museums. In a sense, Pier 24 presents the other extreme, where most of the crucial elements of curating are done away with, and curating becomes less about making selections to help people see than about designing cool-looking clusters of photographs around some rich person’s collection. For me, that’s not curation, that’s just graphic design on the wall. It essentially is a refusal of curation that, crucially, does not help the viewer engage with the work.

In a sense, Pier 24 in part is a missed opportunity. Why are the photographs in any given exhibition not made to talk to each other, given the exhibitions are very clearly themed? What if in the show about portraiture, for example, some of Avedon’s Family photographs had been placed opposite Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs taken in historical wax cabinets?

The issues I mentioned about translate into a larger issue with the exhibitions. Their visions usually appear rather myopic, focusing on the usual suspects. Secondhand is broadly about recent bodies of work created around or with vernacular photographs (this is not quite correct, given that Daniel Gordon really only superficially falls into this category, as does Viktoria Binschtok, but let’s not quibble). But to pretend that any of this is really new certainly misses parts of the history of photography. I think an artist like Hannah Höch would certainly have her opinions about all of this, were she alive today. Collage, after all, uses found imagery, and it has been around for a long time. You wouldn’t know it from the exhibition. So you get Matt Lipps (essentially graphic design with magazine pictures), but no Hannah Höch (actual art).

In much the same fashion, the thinking that Laszlo Moholy Nagy developed around photography and its uses is entirely absent from the exhibition. In much the same way that the New Formalists appear to be happy to ignore Moholy Nagy, this exhibition creates no connections to the past. This might in part be a consequence of the thinking around this show being based so much on the internet and recent trends (“the digital age”). The reality is that the more distant past has a lot of things to offer and teach, and by cutting yourself off from it, you’re essentially missing out.

The somewhat weak concept behind Secondhand and the postage-stamp style presentation amplify the weaknesses of some of the work on display, or they make it clear why refusing to have wall text does the work a disservice. In principle, it should excite everybody to see Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel‘s Evidence in exhibition form. But seeing it presented as if it were a badly organized student show – a long row of prints in what looked like thin plastic frames tacked to the wall – only made me appreciate the original book a lot more. I absolutely love Erik Kessels‘ In Almost Every Picture series of books. But having a room filled to the brim with almost every book, walls and walls plastered with blown-up versions of these charming photographs, with enlarged plastic photo cubes standing cluttering the gallery – there’s just no way anyone can engage with the work. The rooms that did work were the ones where there was less work, and where the viewer’s engagement with the work wasn’t made hard by bad wall design.

If Pier 24 wants to reject the model of museums, they still might want to pay a little bit more attention to how museums (or commercial galleries) hang shows. Having seen four of the exhibitions, I can’t help but think that clinging stubbornly to a concept that makes great sense in theory, in practice makes the space itself and the photography itself suffer. If the viewers’ engagement with the photographs is supposed to be based on the work then the presentation can’t be either overly designy or so gratuitous, with many rows of prints crowding the walls. That’s a lesson most photo students who have to hang a thesis show learn in school before graduating.

In much the same fashion, the lack of wall text only amplifies the weaknesses of the concepts and/or the selection of the material. Group exhibitions in principle offer a great opportunity to bring work together that, as a group, can speak of more than what is in the individual projects. But these connections need to be established. Otherwise, it’s really just a group show in the most literal sense – a group of projects that somehow fall under some broader theme (that might or might not be a bit vague – the portrait show About Face was fine, but A Sense of Place felt and looked disjointed and unresolved).

So I think the people behind Pier 24 might want to re-evaluate if not their mission, but at least the very basic concepts used to organize the exhibitions. There is a lot to be learned from the exhibitions done by major museums, whether it’s the presentations or the way the curatorial concepts are built. As I noted before, I do think that major (US) museums have stopped being the places where cutting-edge photography exhibitions are held. They are mostly busy with organizing the past, usually in the form of safe “blockbuster” exhibitions. Given the vast amount of money behind Pier 24, there is a unique opportunity to build something better. That said, just like in the case of photography itself, restrictions are what makes good work. Having all photographs from almost all included projects in a given exhibition actually might be a bad thing. The work of a curator, after all, is not to pander to a photographer. Her or his job is to make the kind of sense of the work that the artist her/himself can provide, often by establishing connections to other work. For me, the refusal by Pier 24 to showcase this essential curatorial work does the place itself – and the work on display – a huge disservice.