The Artist and the Camera

The Artist and the Camera

“Pier 24 Photography from The Pilara Family Foundation Sold to Benefit Charitable Organizations” will be offered at Sotheby’s New York throughout 2023 beginning with a two-auction event on 1 & 2 May. Founded by Andy and Mary Pilara in 2010, Pier 24 Photography has been a vital destination in San Francisco for the global photography and fine art communities, showcasing a collection of unparalleled depth from established masters of the 20th century to today’s leading contemporary artists.
“Pier 24 Photography from The Pilara Family Foundation Sold to Benefit Charitable Organizations” will be offered at Sotheby’s New York throughout 2023 beginning with a two-auction event on 1 & 2 May. Founded by Andy and Mary Pilara in 2010, Pier 24 Photography has been a vital destination in San Francisco for the global photography and fine art communities, showcasing a collection of unparalleled depth from established masters of the 20th century to today’s leading contemporary artists.

W hy acquire pictures if only to hide them away in storage, Mary and Andy Pilara, the collectors behind Pier 24 Photography, reason. The point of gathering the finest examples of photographic art making is to be able to look at them, and the Pilaras believe these treasures should be available for the public to see as well. For several years they sought out an exhibition space for their growing collection that also afforded enough room for a proper archival storage facility. When they heard about a derelict pier that had been sitting idle along the Embarcadero in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, not 15 minutes from their residence, they embarked on a meticulous – and monumental – renovation. In 2010, when it opened, Pier 24 had been transformed into 28,000 square feet of pristine gallery space. Perhaps it was an unintended rebuke to the presiding national museums at the time, in which a quarter of that space was allotted for the exhibition of photography: 7,000 square feet at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; 7,600 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and 6,800 at the International Center of Photography, New York.

Mr. Pilara tells an ironic story about the genesis of his passion for photographs. He was not even interested in the medium until Mary took him to see the 2003 Diane Arbus retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “I was enjoying the show, but really as a spectator,” he remembered. Then he came across Arbus’s pictures of individuals at facilities for the mentally disabled, and he was so moved that it shook him: “I had an emotional response and I thought, wait a minute, this is just paper up there with some silver nitrate. How in the hell can that happen?” was the epiphany that sparked his curiosity about photography, and he immediately sought out more of her work, which in turn spawned a systematic enterprise of discovery about the medium of photography and a pursuit of the best photographs in the field.


While the history of photography has its own ever-recalibrating trajectory, the canon established by John Szarkowski, legendary curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was the beacon that guided Pilara’s early choices in collecting. Szarkowski was instrumental in photography’s elevation in stature as an equal among the fine arts, and peerless in his eloquence as an oracle of its significance. Szarkowski was first to confer importance on the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand in his landmark 1967 exhibition New Documents. That show, considered radical at the time, identified a new direction in photography: pictures that seemed to have a casual, snapshot-like look, and subject matter so ordinary that it was hard to categorize. Szarkowski suggested that, until then, the aim of documentary photography had been to show what was wrong with the world as a way to generate interest in rectifying it – for instance the Farm Security Administration’s photographic documentation of life in America during the Depression, or the socially conscious work produced by the Magnum collective. But this show signaled a change: “In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends,” he wrote in his wall text. “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”

These artists were not photographing identifiable “subject matter” per se; they were documenting, in an existential sense, the act of seeing. Critics scratched their heads at Lee Friedlander’s unremarkable urban streetscapes, for example, but to look at any one of them is to engage a riddle of the eye where seemingly random elements come together in the picture frame as a magical reordering of the commonplace.

Garry Winogrand, World’s Fair, New York, from Women Are Beautiful (1981). Estimate: $70,000–100,000

Winogrand’s World’s Fair, New York (1964) is a canny picture of individuals seated on a bench, as if engaged in a shared activity like passing along a secret from one to the next in a game of telephone. The hand gestures, bent arms, and crossed legs reverberate back and forth with the rhythm and movement of a series of notes on a musical score. The picture is constructed with repeated visual harmonies that conjure the buoyancy of music. Winogrand’s observation of a “culture in trouble” could be painfully stark, but it was rarely without a twinkle in his eye.

In the late 1960s, Robert Adams, in counterpoint to the photographers in New Documents, turned his camera on a concrete subject, albeit one of vast scope and environmental significance – the rapacious effects of society on the landscape of the American West. He would be among the photographers in another benchmark exhibition – New Topographics (1975), held at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York – that addressed land use in the postindustrial era. Adams’s reverence for the beauty of the natural world incentivized him to document the new housing developments and industrial sites that encroached on the bucolic meadows of his home state, Colorado, or that cropped up in isolated pockets on the desert plain. Mindful of the landscape photographers who preceded him by a century – Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins – Adams brought a spare formalism, along with quiet indignation, to his straightforward photographs. “The goal is to face the facts but to find a basis for hope,” he said. “To try for alchemy.”

Robert Adams, Eden Colorado (1968–70). Estimate $150,000–250,000

Among Adams’s photographs in the Pier 24 Photography Collection are a near-complete group from his book Eden (New York: Roth Horowitz, 1999), in which he focused on a single-offramp truck-stop town outside of Colorado Springs with an idyllic name. These pictures document the mundane exit road, the parked cars and trucks, gas pumps, a utilitarian garage, a diner interior, and signage for food and gas. For Adams, beauty is neither a four-letter word nor a cliché; it is what motivates him to photograph with poetic resonance the most sober details of humanity’s deleterious imprint on the land. Here, his keen observation reflects surprising equanimity in an otherwise hauntingly barren terrain. As Joni Mitchell wrote in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone / They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs (1968). Estimate: $50,000–70,000

Colorado Springs (1968), another Adams photograph in the collection, is a seemingly quiet picture of the facade of a typical tract house, its prim walkway curving to the front steps as if to underscore the picture window above. In the window, an individual is silhouetted, contained in a frame within a frame. It could so easily be an ordinary photograph until the symmetries kick in – the vertical door with shutters on either side balanced against the horizontal window flanked by interior shades that echo the door shutters. The straight-edged geometry is so well organized around the diminished figure that the photograph becomes a metaphor for the human condition in twentieth-century America – our collective entrapment within a subsuming industrialized world.

Lee Friedlander, Washington, D. C., from The Little Screens (1961–70). Estimate: $500,000–700,000

In its inaugural exhibition, Pier 24 Photography installed several full portfolios by individual photographers, each in its own gallery. One contained all the original prints from Lee Friedlander’s The Little Screens (1961–70), photographs of television screens in motel rooms across America in the 1960s. Another housed each original print from Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust. While a photobook provides an intimate way of looking at a series of pictures, by turning pages one at a time, to stand before an entire series on the wall at Pier 24 allows the viewer to take in the images all at once, absorbing a photographer’s visual frequency in one collective observation before stepping up to each vintage print at eye level – an edifying experience all around.

Some of the work in the Pier 24 Photography Collection can be codified by theme: the portrait, for example, is a genre all its own within the history of photography, in which lineages between one photographer and another can be identified. Here, a comparison between two photographers in the collection marks a distinct evolution from one generation to the next: Richard Avedon’s Katharine Graham, Chairman of the Board, Washington Post Company, Washington, D.C., March 11, 1976 (1976) and Katy Grannan’s Anonymous, Los Angeles (2008). The similarities are obvious on the surface: both subjects are white, middle-aged women seemingly of a particular class; both are posed out of context against a solid white backdrop; both face the camera directly, unsmiling; and both are cropped just below the waist. But the differences are equally striking, beginning with the Avedon in black and white and the Grannan in color; the Avedon in the studio and the Grannan on the street; the Avedon from The Family, a series about power in America photographed on the occasion of the US Bicentennial for Rolling Stone magazine, and the Grannan from her Boulevard (2008–10) series of anonymous (and sometimes homeless) individuals on the street in Los Angeles. Finally, the Avedon was made in the mid-20th century and the Grannan in the early 21st.

Images from left to right: RICHARD AVEDON, KATHARINE GRAHAM, CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD, WASHINGTON POST COMPANY, WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 11, 1976, FROM THE FAMILY (1976). ESTIMATE: $180,000–220,000. Katy Grannan, Anonymous, Los Angeles (2008–09). Estimate: $15,000–25,000.

Another category in the Pier 24 Photography Collection to be defined as a theme is Japanese photography from the postwar to the present. Following World War II, the US occupation in Japan lingered, and the term for it, Americanization, came to signify the infusion of Western popular culture and modern consumerism into Japan’s old-world customs. Shomei Tomatsu’s documentation of postwar life in Japan is at times poetic, at others a literal reflection of the effects of the nuclear era on Japanese society. A Bottle Melted by the Heat Wave and Fires, Nagasaki (1961) is a haunting image of a material object transformed by the atomic bomb into what our eyes read as possibly an animal organ. Here, the literal jolts with poetic resonance.

Shomei Tomatsu, Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki (1961). Estimate: $20,000–30,000

Americanization in Japan was not an easy marriage of tradition and modernity. The friction was compounded during the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s. Daido Moriyama, who apprenticed under Tomatsu, was one of the founders of Provoke, a short-lived publication founded in Japan at that moment whose pivotal significance on Japanese photography has become more evident with the years. The Provoke photographers eschewed traditional picture making in favor of an almost defiant expressiveness that reads today as both mournful and nihilistic.

Selected images by Daido Moriyama. Estimate: $5,000–7,000

The editors were a restless bunch who employed a term for their unique style, are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out of focus), that was an intentional subversion of the optical clarity that had always passed as visual objectivity in the photographic image. Moriyama’s Self-Portrait, Paris (1989) exemplifies the nihilistic approach to picture making, as if the image were decomposing before our very eyes. He says: “For me, photography is not about an attempt to create a two-dimensional work of art, but by taking photo after photo, I come closer to truth and reality at the very intersection of the fragmentary nature of the world and my own personal sense of time.”

In the 1980s, postmodern critical theory leveled some necessary challenges to the belief in photography as fact and raised important questions about the medium’s cultural implications. Larry Sultan embraced those questions by expanding the idea of “documentation.” Intentionally, he intersected the authentic moment with the constructed image. In several bodies of work, Sultan interrogated (to use a postmodern term) a set of ideas about who we are as individuals in an increasingly mediated world. Pictures from Home (1983–92), which addresses the illusion of the American dream, is a portrait series of his parents using several concurrent forms of documentation: he made original color pictures of his subjects in the context of authentic activities of their daily lives; he mined archival family pictures and home movies to anatomize their history; and, finally, he interviewed them about their lives.

Richard Learoyd, After Ingres (2011). Estimate: $40,000–60,000

In Richard Learoyd’s photography, the use of color is unique because of the ambiguities at play. With a life-size camera obscura in his studio in London – a room within a room – he explores perceptual intricacies. The figure is exposed in light that then passes through the lens onto sensitized paper. The subject is rendered with optical precision, yet also with color and light of an atmospheric dimension. After Ingres (2011), Learoyd’s reclining nude, is viewed from behind, one hand falling like a still life over the edge of her waist, the opposite arm bent with the elegance of Ingres’s famous Odalisque (1814), to which the work is an homage. By merging contemporary materials with an ancient optical technique, Learoyd propels the medium of photography forward.

The photographs I have described from the Pier 24 Photography Collection barely scratch the surface of its holdings. Documentary photography alone is represented in a variety of genres, from social realism (Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, David Goldblatt, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt) to landscape, whether natural, industrial, or urban (Robert Adams, Berenice Abbott, Lewis Baltz, Edward Burtynsky, Richard Misrach). In the collection, too, is work of a more conceptual bent (Bernd and Hilla Becher, Vera Lutter, Mike Mandel, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Christopher Williams). And, of course, there is the vast umbrella of vernacular work reflected in the range of pictures by unknown photographers.

“If you use photography,” Bernd Becher once said, “you should always reflect the medium. And this reflection should be represented in the photograph.” It was an idea about making artwork of the highest conceptual order – creating images with regard to a precise articulation of form and description of subject in the same way a writer chooses carefully the exact wording that might sharpen an idea or tweak a metaphor for greater resonance. This is what the artist does with the camera. And this is the common strain that runs through the photographs in the Pier 24 Photography Collection.

This article was originally published in 2021 and edited in 2023 for a catalogue on The Pilara Family Foundation.


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