Art of the cam­era

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY BREN­DAN SPIEGEL

A new West Coast mu­seum fo­cuses on great pho­tog­ra­phy.

Di­rectly be­neath the mam­moth Bay Bridge in San Fran­cisco — past the tourist hordes clog­ging the Ferry Build­ing and be­fore I reach the pic­turesque water­front sur­round­ing the Giants’ base­ball sta­dium — I come to an over­size arch­way marked “Pier 24.” Be­fore me, an aban­doned stretch of rail­road track leads di­rectly into San Fran­cisco Bay. On ei­ther side stand two gi­ant gray ware­houses. One has a darkly tinted glass door: the low-key en­trance to an ex­cit­ing new mu­seum.

This is Pier 24 pho­tog­ra­phy, the brain­child of lo­cal in­vest­ment banker An­drew Pi­lara. Seven years ago, Pi­lara went to an ex­hi­bi­tion at the San Fran­cis­coMu­se­u­mofModern Art that show­cased Diane Ar­bus’s black-and-white pho­to­graphs of chil­dren with Down syn­drome. He was so taken with the pho­tos that he tracked down Ar­bus’s dealer and bought one, the first pho­to­graph he’d ever pur­chased.

“I was just wowed that these pieces of paper with a lit­tle ni­trate on them could be so mov­ing,” says Pi­lara, who quickly be­came an ob­ses­sive col­lec­tor of doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy and now owns more than 2,000 pho­tos by many of the 20th cen­tury’s most re­spected artists. To dis­play them, he leased this 28,000square-foot ware­house, which came com­plete with nest­ing pi­geons and gap­ing holes in the floor­boards, and has turned it into one of the largest pho­tog­ra­phy gal­leries in the coun­try.

Upon en­ter­ing the build­ing — which is spruced up but still very much a ware­house, with ex­posed beams, alu­minum tub­ing and a high wooden ceil­ing — I’m dis­ap­pointed to see sev­eral of the gallery’s sub­di­vided rooms shrouded in dark­ness. I peek into one just to see what’s in it, and a light flick­ers on, il­lu­mi­nat­ing a se­ries of Man Ray pho­to­graphs. The room is com­pletely silent, and for the moment, I’mthe only one view­ing the pic­tures. I sup­pose this is what it feels like to be a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire art col­lec­tor sur­vey­ing my pri­vate stash.

It’s a sen­sa­tion that most vis­i­tors can ex­pe­ri­ence: Ad­mis­sion to Pier 24, which opened lastMarch, is free and limited to just 20 peo­ple dur­ing each two-hour ap­point­ment slot.

The gallery’s cur­rent show runs through Fe­bru­ary and sup­ple­ments Pi­lara’s col­lec­tion with pho­tos owned by his friend Bob Fisher, son of the founders of the Gap. I’mno art critic, but I re­al­ize that it’s un­heard of to see this many mar­quee works in a sin­gle gallery, much less to get a practi- cally pri­vate view­ing. The show has no an­nounced theme, but as I wan­der from Walker Evans’s iconic im­ages of the Great De­pres­sion to Robert Frank’s se­ries on post­war com­mu­ni­ties to Ar­bus’s in­ti­mate por­traits of trans­ves­tites, giants and mid­gets, it feels some­thing like a ret­ro­spec­tive of the en­tire 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence.

I’m also just as taken with the pho­tos I don’t rec­og­nize: a fry cook with a Char­lie Chap­lin mus­tache pos­ing in front of a 15-centsand­wich shop; a ’50s-era older woman loung­ing out­doors on a beat-up sofa; an oc­to­ge­nar­ian sit­ting alone with a re­volver in a nurs­ing home. I have no idea which of these pho­tos are fa­mous and which are un­known; I just know which ones move me. And that is the point, as all the pho­tos are pre­sented with­out com­men­tary or even men­tion of the artists’ names.

“I know that when I go to a mu­seum, I walk up to an im­age, and then two sec­onds later I read the de­scrip­tion and my per­spec­tive nar­rows,” says Pi­lara. “I want the peo­ple who walk in here to read through their gut, not their eyes.”

At the end of the gallery there’s a full-color photo of tourists crammed into a small room at Paris’s Musee d’Or­say, clutch­ing au­dio tours to their ears, study­ing mu­seum maps, sur­rep­ti­tiously pho­tograph­ing fa­mous im­pres­sion­ist works. I take it as a sub­tle re­buke to the mu­se­ums of the world, re­mind­ing us that view­ing great art doesn’t have to be a crowded, assem­bly-line ex­pe­ri­ence. At Pier 24, it’s just the pho­tos and me.

travel@wash­post.com

Spiegel is a New York-based food and travel writer and the co-edi­tor of the food blog End­less Sim­mer.

Pier 24 The Em­bar­cadero at Har­ri­son Street, San Fran­cisco 415-512-7424

pier24.org

By ap­point­ment only, Mon­day through Thurs­day, 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Book on­line. Free.

PHO­TOS BY TOM O'CON­NOR

At Pier 24, mu­seum pho­to­graphs by Thomas Struth let you look at art of peo­ple look­ing at art.

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