The Big Picture

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Hiroshi Sugimoto, The Last Supper: Acts of God, 1999/2012 (installation view). Photo: Courtesy Pier 24 Photography

Pier 24, located on the Embarcadero, is offering visitors the opportunity to see more of its collection than ever before. Exhibitions at the prominent photography museum typically revolve around one or two artists or a strong curatorial theme. Looking Back: Ten Years of Pier 24 Photography, through December 31, tosses these limitations in favor of a retrospective that plumbs photography’s rich history while celebrating the museum’s first decade of exhibitions and acquisitions.

The museum’s 28,000-square-foot exhibition space has been subdivided into seventeen small galleries. Six revolve around broad themes and aesthetic trends in photography; 11 focus on just one or two artists. Looking Back serves as a history of Pier 24, founded in 2010 by philanthropists Andrew and Mary Pilara, and an accounting of photography, spanning centuries and styles. The 400-plus works on view – roughly ten percent of the institution’s collection – are a combination of fan-favorites and pieces debuting at the museum for the first time.

The largest gallery, About Face, focuses on portrait photography, from celebrities to the unhoused, including one of the best pieces debuting at the museum: Richard Avedon’s 1957 portrait of a wistful Marilyn Monroe. The adjoining gallery contains hundreds of 20th Century criminal mugshots from around the world. While itself a neat exploration of one historical application of photography, the juxtaposition with the formal portraits illustrates that having a camera pointed at you, for any reason, makes you special, a standout among the masses.

The exhibition – like history – reflects a dialogue between the macro and micro; the individual and the global. Edward Burtynsky’s Manufacturing #10ab, Cankun Factory, Xiamen City, China, 2015, featuring prominently in the Industry and Labor gallery, best encompasses this theme. The picture shows hundreds of factory workers on an assembly line. Their identical yellow uniforms belie the personality discernable in their faces: quantity doesn’t reduce the innate value of the individual experience.

The gallery titled The City that Never Sleeps,features photos of New York by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. Most are titled simply New York, a stylistic convention that emphasizes the monotonous and impersonal experience of city life and photography itself, even when made up of close looks and stolen glances at the deeply personal. Winogrand’s New York, 1962, is an image of a couple riding with a monkey in their convertible; Arbus’s Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, 1962, shows precisely what the title states, the young boy’s face warped in a maniacal grimace.

“There are things nobody would see unless I photographed them,” Arbus once said.

That’s not unique to Arbus. Photos wouldn’t exist without the photographer’s discernment. But the experience of seeing so many photographs in one place also brings to mind how many more moments go unseen. Looking Back prompts us to apply to our daily lives – increasingly image-saturated, thanks to the smartphone – the same deliberation with which we view art.

Because photography shows us how things are – or were, at one moment in time – Looking Back is as much a history of humanity as it is a history of an artistic medium. The volume of images in the exhibit matches the multiplicity of human experience. We all move within the flow of history, but often lose sight of the present. Looking Back inspires us to engage with the abundantly diverse world around us as we would with a photograph. Each picture was, after all, someone else’s present.

Pier 24 is open free by-appointment Monday through Friday. A companion exhibit, Looking Forward, slated for early 2022, will focus on recent works and newer acquisitions.