Unquestionably, San Francisco is a photography collector’s dream. The Pilara Foundation’s collection of 20th and 21st century American photography is an emphatic testament to that.
Pier 24, on the San Francisco Embarcadero, houses the permanent photographic collection of the Pilara Foundation – over 2400 photographic images that include significant works by Richard Avedon, Dorothea Lange, and Diane Arbus, as well as important works by Hendrik Kerstens, August Sander, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Daido Moriyama, and Zwelethu Mithethwa. Inspired by Revelations – the Diane Arbus retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art initiated the Foundation’s first acquisition, a photographic portrait from Arbus’ challenging and emotive Untitled series. The emotional intensity characterizing this photograph subsequently informed later acquisitions for the collection.
The current exhibition, About Face, addresses traditions of portrait-based photography, with nearly one thousand photographs drawn mostly from the Foundation’s permanent collection. Displaying wide-ranging approaches to portraiture from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day, About Face, presents works by August Sander (Face of Our Time), Richard Avedon (The Family), Jim Goldberg (Rich and Poor), Larry Sultan (SF Society), as well as selected works by Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of Henry VIII and his six wives, Gillian Wearing, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Richard Learoyd, Yasumasa Morimura, Tomoko Sawada, and a beautifully installed selection of hand-painted family portraits from Brazil known as Retratos Pintados.
About Face is an intensely moving and emotive exhibition. Beginning with the Retratos Pintados, I was reminded of childhood portrait studios in Spain and the Philippines. To my left was a room with the only complete collection of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s dramatic silver gelatin portraits of Henry VIII and his six wives. Haunting and beautiful, viewers commented on the portraits in hushed whispering tones. Wandering through every room of the exhibition, each well installed and lit, my favorite room paid sensuous homage to the wide range of photography within the collection – Hendrik Kerstens’ Hairnet (2000), Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) – an homage to American migrant workers, a close up of Andy Warhol’s gunshot wounds, and saturated color images of somber Africans. Before my visit, I was casually appreciative of photography as an artistic medium of expression, and now am a devoted convert to the powerful beauty of the lens and image.
Without wall text or descriptive labels, the Foundation purportedly wishes to allow viewers full experience of the photography without distraction, according to curator Chris McCall. Personally, I appreciate wall text. It provides insight and information, and to a newly appreciated convert, it’s valuable. The Foundation’s presentation of intimate and personal viewing, and peaceful contemplation, of the exhibition reminds me of the idiosyncracies of private collections in Europe such as the Peggy Guggenheim (Venice), the Borghese (Rome), and Rosenblum (Paris) collections. And I am reminded again, that the Pilara Foundation Collection is, after all, a private collection.
Visits are by appointment only, timed for 2 hours, and limited to 20 visitors.
About Face is on exhibition at Pier 24 from May 15, 2012 through April 30, 2013.
Pier 24 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, California 94105
Open By Appointment. Monday – Thursday 9am to 5pm