Since opening to the public in 2010, San Francisco’s Pier 24 has quickly established itself as one of America’s premiere photographic institutions. The space, dramatically situated under the city’s Bay Bridge, is a meticulously converted warehouse, which has been transformed into a contemplative environment for viewing photographic works.

The foundation of the collection are the 4,000+ photographs collected by Andy and Mary Pilara over the past dozen years. Today, the breadth of their holdings range from renowned international artists to emerging local talents. But the story of this unique institution began with a single exhibition and a single body of work. Revelations—a Diane Arbus retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2003—inspired the purchase of the Pilaras’ first photograph: a portrait from Arbus’ challenging series Untitled.

Below, we interview Pier 24’s founding director Chris McCall, who has led the space since its inception. We’re delighted that Chris has agreed to be a member of this year’s jury for the LensCulture Art Photography Awards, and in this interview, he touches on the history of Pier 24’s collection, his views on their distinctive visitor experience, and much more.

LensCulture: The roots of Pier 24 began with a single exhibition and a single photograph—a portrait from Diane Arbus’ challenging and emotive Untitled series. Can you discuss this photo a bit and offer some thoughts as to how/why it was able to spark the creation of this unique institution?

Chris McCall: Andy and Mary Pilara went to see the Arbus retrospective hanging at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). In the second-to-last room, Andy confronted works from her Untitled series. Upon seeing these pictures, he became so emotional, he had to leave the room. It was the first time he was conscious of being moved by a photograph. But not only did it move him—it also challenged him. And this is a key.

When people start collecting art, there are more accessible kinds of work, and then there are certain bodies of work that take longer to understand. Arbus’ Untitled series is definitely one of the latter. These aren’t pretty pictures of flowers or beautiful portraits by Avedon—this is difficult work. It features people who we usually don’t look at and, as a society, try to hide away. It can take many collectors a while to even consider acquiring such images—but that’s exactly where Pier 24 started.

Installation view: The Inaugural Exhibition, March 16, 2010–June 16, 2010.
Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco

Thus, the Pilaras decided their collection would gravitate towards work that was both challenging and moving—and not necessarily in a positive manner. For example, there are some pieces by Katy Grannan that disturbed Andy from the first time he saw them, but this is exactly what pushed him to acquire the work.

To give a more widely known example, look at Picasso’s Guernica. It’s shocking and upsetting and shows us the brutality of war. I think sometimes people forget that disturbing images are equally as powerful as uplifting ones. That’s the power of art—it moves us in some manner, both good and bad, and certainly not just in one direction.

So, the collection’s cornerstone lay in this Arbus series and the tone and expectations of what the collection would become grew from there.

LC: You serve as the director of “the largest exhibition space in the world dedicated solely to photography”—quite a responsibility! When you were hired, you were 33 years old and had never worked in a museum or a gallery. Looking back, what have been some of the most surprising or unexpected aspects of your job? How about the most gratifying? What are some lessons you have learned that are worth sharing?

CM: Without a doubt, I have received a priceless education by working with Mary and Andy. To be able to help them create a space which, from the beginning, came with absolutely no preconceived notions, was an enlightening experience.

Generosity and community were always ideas integral to our conception of Pier 24. We never wanted to be an island—we have always felt that engagement with the San Francisco photographic community (and beyond) would be essential to the institution. For example, we partnered with SFMOMA and California College of the Arts (CCA) to create the Larry Sultan Visiting Artist program, which brings six international photographers annually to the Bay Area to give public lectures and work with graduate students. In the last year, this program has grown to include a partnership with the Headlands Center for the Arts in order to give an annual photography award and residency.

More personally, I was initially brought in as a director, not as a curator. So one of the great surprises of my time here has been the opportunity to work closely with many of the photographers I grew up admiring: many of whom are my heroes. For example, to be able to work closely with Stephen Shore on an exhibition and interview him and learn from him has been immensely rewarding. Meanwhile, Henry Wessel has taught me more about photography than anyone else in my entire life, and I’ve had the chance to talk with him at length thanks to my work at Pier 24. To see, up close, a master like him still trying to understand the visual language of photography after all these years—that’s inspiring to me.

Now, I recognize that those are unique opportunities that not everyone can experience. But I do think there are some universal lessons I’ve gathered. Most importantly, I think Pier 24’s willingness to be open—and never become set in our ways—is something we could all learn from. At the beginning of the institution, we chose a path without having any idea where it would lead. But we were guided by a belief that we didn’t have to follow any preexisting conventions or rules.

Lee Friedlander, selections from “America by Car,” 1992–2009.
Installation view from “A Sense of Place,” July 1, 2013–May 30, 2014.
Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco

After six years, we haven’t come up with a formula about how a show should look. We approach each new exhibition as its own unique entity. This involves lengthy conversations between Andy, our staff, and myself. In some cases, we work directly with the artists we will be showing, gaining insight from their perspectives. We are constantly willing to take risks and try new ideas.

A few years ago, I hung a room with 100 pictures by Lee Friedlander [image above]. I had obviously studied the work and thought about it a lot: I had a concept in mind. Still, when the prints came, I allowed myself to be open to the endless possibilities they offered. After all, I couldn’t know exactly how to hang the work until I saw all the prints together.

Perhaps, the most overarching lesson I’ve learned is that moments of failure lead to greater things. Without risk, there’s no reward. This is something we should all keep in mind.

LC: In a previous exhibition titled Collected, you indicated how the idea of collections are central to Pier 24—both the Pilara’s collection and now others’ collections as well. What is the importance of this idea for you? Why should a broader public be engaged with such a specific act—after all, only a tiny fraction of us are bonafide photography collectors.

CM: Collecting is an art in and of itself, but I don’t think it’s an exclusive one by any means. At any of our shows, you’ll find priceless works by William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander next to groupings of photographs I bought on eBay or at a flea market in Pennsylvania for a couple of dollars apiece.

In that sense, there’s an important act of levelling—great images are great, regardless of who took them. I’ve found press photos of baseball players from the early 1900s or employee ID badges [see below] that I thought had an incredible amount of artistry in them. I truly believe that everyday objects can hold real beauty: it’s about looking for and finding those special objects.

Employee Badges, 1920s–1960s.
Installation view from Secondhand, August 1, 2014–May 31, 2015.
Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco

For example, I personally have a collection of vintage wood tops. They’ve all been played with; some are damaged, some are painted in different ways. Alone, a single top is unremarkable. But when you amass 50 of them, it reveals something deeper and greater than the individual object can.

But one thing this exhibition showed us is that a lot of people have that collecting bug. Maybe it’s baseball cards or stickers or books—what we collect changes over time. Yet it seems fairly universal that people collect things. In the show, we interviewed each collector who had lent works to the exhibition and talked to them about their origins as collectors; their responses were enlightening.

Even at the highest levels, the roots of collecting often run back to simple, universal feelings.

So I hope that Pier 24’s consistent exhibition of vernacular photography encourages people to realize that anyone can start a collection, even a photographic one!

LC: From the beginning, the visitor experience at Pier 24 has been about contemplation and intimacy. A welcome relief in our age of blaring virality and dizzying variety. Still, when you put together an excellent exhibition, do you have any reservations about the limited number of people who are able to appreciate it—or do you remain committed to the necessarily finite-quantity experience that you have designed?

CM: We are always looking at what we do and figuring out ways to improve our guests’ experiences. For example, the original number of guests was limited to 20 people per 2-hour period in addition to one school or museum group. In the last year, we increased the number of guests per period and discovered that the feeling of solitude and quiet was not diminished. As a result, we were able accommodate more guests per day.

Since opening in 2010, we have two to three “floating” docents who circulate through the exhibition and are available to guests at any time. They know the work well and are happy to answer questions or discuss the works on display. We also don’t use wall texts in the space. Instead, we make a guide available with basic details about the works and a bit of contextual information. This irks some people, but many others have told us they find the emphasis on the works freeing.

LC: I know you are constantly looking out for new prints to acquire for the collection. What are some places you discover work? Is there any advice you can give to a photographer who might hope to “catch your eye” or somehow grab your attention out in the crowded world?

CM: As I’ve mentioned, I look for work in a lot of unconventional places. But there are many sources I turn to in looking for compelling work. At any given time, we have 20-25 volunteers at Pier 24, some of whom are photographers who bring their works in for us to see and discuss.

I also engage with local art schools as much as possible. In the past, I have helped hang graduate shows at CCA and the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). While I’m there, I look at the work and encourage students to think about how to present their projects in compelling ways. I attend many portfolio reviews in San Francisco as well (and occasionally beyond the confines of the city).

Outside of face-to-face meetings, online competitions are an excellent way for me to see what’s out there. I’m constantly taking notes and writing names down so I can follow people’s work. Competitions are a great way to get your work in front of the people who put together exhibitions and publish books.

But perhaps most useful to me of all are photobooks—they’re an immensely useful resource. Not only am I a major photobook nerd with a huge personal collection, but I think we can all benefit from photobook publishers’ eyes. Thanks to the amazing growth of independent publishers out there, these are people who have their fingers on the pulse of the most experimental and cutting-edge work. We can all take advantage of their sharp eyes!

I believe independent presses are essential to exposing curators, collectors and enthusiasts to the newest, freshest work.

For young photographers, photobooks can provide a great foot in the door. An excellent case in point is Jason Fulford, who is a photographer but also co-founder of J&L Books. Early on, he published the work of Gregory Halpern. Thanks in part to the success of that book, MACK published a project with Halpern as well. The book quickly sold out and was nominated for Aperture’s Photobook Award. You can see how a small, independent publisher helped bring Greg’s work to a larger audience.

Now, the downfall of this photobook obsession is that many, many young artists these days prioritize having their work published in books; they don’t think as much about how to present their work on walls. Yes, many great artists got their start with books—Paul Graham and Lee Friedlander, to name a few—but they have also given thought about how to exhibit their work.

(Lee Friedlander, selected “Self-Portraits, 1958–2011.”
Installation view from About Face, May 15, 2012–April 30, 2013.
Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco

So a key piece of advice I offer to young people is this: finish your work and get even one piece framed and photographed as an installation shot. Hang a sequence in your house or studio. This gives people like me context for how your work could be displayed. Even if you’re applying to a competition or residency, think about how many images you are able to submit and make one or two of them installation shots—it is a tremendous help to visual people like me.

LC: Lastly: you’ve said that “working with photographers is one of your greatest joys.” Having had the opportunity to work with some of the “heroes” of contemporary photography, what are some common traits that you see in them and their work that you think younger photographers would do well to note/emulate?

CM: Let me be up front: I sometimes feel like a dream-crusher when I tell young photographers that becoming a successful artist is about as difficult as going to Hollywood with the goal of becoming the next Tom Cruise.

The art world is an incredibly challenging place.

A common trait I have observed in many great photographers is an obsession and passion for the medium. Being an artist was not a career they decided to pursue: photography chose them. Similarly, just taking photographs does not make you a photographer. That is just one aspect of your practice. Thinking about the images, learning the history of the medium, attending lectures, reading, being out there—these are all essential parts of the practice.

For example, Stephen Shore has an excellent grasp of the visual language of photography and thus a clear sense of where his voice falls into the history of that language. As a younger artist, you’re trying to find that place for yourself. Figure out what dialects you speak—part Stephen Shore, part Robert Frank, part Alec Soth. The only way to find your place is to be consumed by it. Lay out a project, learn from it and move on. A level of obsession and desire to understand the language is essential. Can you master this language? Recognize that you never will, completely, since all the giants continue to grapple with it and explore it for their entire lives.

(US Route 10, Post Falls, Idaho, August 25, 1974, 1975. © Stephen Shore.
Courtesy Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco

Sometimes, you see certain photographers rise or get hot for a moment and then you see lots of people emulating them: the “Alec Soth-effect.” After Sleeping by the Mississippi, I saw so much work that took the idea for that series and transposed it to a new locale. Of course, that’s what you do as a young artist—you copy old masters until you learn your craft. But you see a lot of young artists duplicating the work of masters they admire instead of understanding it. They just replicate it and try to have the same success. That won’t get you somewhere new.

Every time I’m talking with someone like Shore or Wessel, I find myself expressing an idea I’m grappling with about the medium. I then find they can say it back to me, but in a much more articulate manner. It shows they have devoted a lot of their time to thinking about the medium they are so passionate about. This level of commitment is needed on all fronts. There’s a reason why great painters, sculptors and photographers can quickly rattle off a list of predecessors they’re inspired by. This is a fundamental component of making work that’s not repetitive or derivative, but work that takes the medium a step forward.