I'm of the persuasion that feels that most decent art is capable of speaking for itself. With occasional exceptions—and there are always exceptions—I think that work that cannot be understood in its own vernacular is not successful work.
Photographs are, for the most part, meant to be looked at. If I can't appreciate it without knowing journalism's "5 Ws"—who, what, where, when, why, and how—it's likely not a particularly good photograph (of course, tautologically, photojournalism and narratives cannot be held to such stricture). The most common sin I find photographers committing when they present their work is talking over it.
I belong to a small circle of photographers who, about once a quarter, have a "print potluck." Everybody brings a dinner dish and up to 10 prints. It's a great motivator to force us off our duffs and actually make new prints. The work varies from better-than-decent to breathtaking; the group's coordinator does work that is stunning (and I would introduce you folks to it if he would ever get a friggin' website up, and yes, I'm talking about you, R.A.).
Still, everyone talks over their work. It's not just that they don't have enough confidence in their work to let it stand on its own 3-legged easel. I find it genuinely distracting. I want to concentrate on the photograph, thank you.
Those of you who know me will be astonished to learn that I, by careful and conscious effort, am by far the most taciturn of the presenters. Saying close to nothing when showing my work gets people's attention directed at the work. I wish more photographers were like me.
Which brings me to Pier 24 in San Francisco. Like so many photography museums, this was created by one man, Andy Pilara, to house his collection. It hosts long-running shows (six months or more) featuring work from his collection and from other major collections. It springs from the typical collectors' problem: if you are serious about collecting art, you will quickly exceed the capacity of your house. And if you're a really rich collector, you typically solve this problem by endowing a museum to build a wing to house your collection, or you build your own museum.
In other respects, this is far from a typical photography museum. It is free to the public, an unfortunate rarity in the United States these days. All you need is an appointment. Its doors are never open to walk-ins. Entry is by reservation only, during the operating hours of the museum (roughly 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday).
You make your reservation up to 30 days in advance, for a specific day and two-hour block of time. You will not be admitted early. You may not stay late. An attendant will come looking for you a few minutes before your allotted time has expired. They will find you, even though the museum has something like 27,000 ft. of exhibition space and two-dozen-odd galleries. That is because Pier 24 admits no more than 20 people at one time!
Most of the time you'll have an entire gallery to yourself, no distracting crowds, no concerns about getting in the way of other attendees or vice versa or distracting them with your heated artistic discussions with your visiting companion (assuming you have one...or are comfortable talking to yourself). It's your own personal humongous viewing room.
The most unusual aspect of Pier 24 is that there is no textual information in any of the gallery spaces, not a single word. It is purely a photographic experience. The only identifying information is a number set into the floor in the middle of the gallery. You can pick up an exhibition book when you enter the museum. On the page devoted to that gallery, you will usually find the name of the photographer. Sometimes, not always, you will find titles for the works on the wall (the exhibition book has photographs of the walls with the hanging work for identification; the real hanging work doesn't even have identifying numbers). On very rare occasions you will find some sort of artist statement.
The experience is indescribable. Hence, I am not even going to try. I was amazed, amused, and slightly appalled at how disconcerted I was by being made to look at photographs with no external information. It was almost a compulsion to want to know something about the backstory, at least who made the photograph.
I resisted; I never looked in the exhibition book until I had thoroughly studied the work in a gallery. In most every room, that additional information didn't change my appreciation of the photograph one bit. Given how compelling the urge was to acquire that knowledge, I thought it would. The urge was real; the actual need, as it turned out, was not. In a few cases, the additional knowledge did alter my opinions and impressions but 90% of the time it turned out to be irrelevant.
A singularly peculiar and enjoyable experience. One I plan to repeat.
Check it out: http://www.pier24.org. Currently they're between exhibits; the best way to find out when the new one will be mounted (and thereby give you first chance to make a reservation to see it) is to sign up for their newsletter.
*Yes, the XKCD cartoon is one of my favorites. (Don't forget to check the mouseover texts.)
Scheduled viewings of Ctein's verbal creations can usually be reserved for Wednesdays. It's just that the museum just happened to be closed yesterday.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.