Side Order: San Francisco's unusual new museum of photography

At Pier 24, museum photographs by Thomas Struth let you look at art of people looking at art.
At Pier 24, museum photographs by Thomas Struth let you look at art of people looking at art. (Tom O'Connor)
By Brendan Spiegel
Friday, December 31, 2010; 1:07 PM

Directly beneath the mammoth Bay Bridge in San Francisco - past the tourist hordes clogging the Ferry Building and before I reach the picturesque waterfront surrounding the Giants' baseball stadium - I come to an oversize archway marked "Pier 24." Before me, an abandoned stretch of railroad track leads directly into San Francisco Bay. On either side stand two giant gray warehouses. One has a darkly tinted glass door: the low-key entrance to an exciting new museum.

This is Pier 24 photography, the brainchild of local investment banker Andrew Pilara. Seven years ago, Pilara went to an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showcased Diane Arbus's black-and-white photographs of children with Down syndrome. He was so taken with the photos that he tracked down Arbus's dealer and bought one, the first photograph he'd ever purchased.

"I was just wowed that these pieces of paper with a little nitrate on them could be so moving," says Pilara, who quickly became an obsessive collector of documentary photography and now owns more than 2,000 photos by many of the 20th century's most respected artists. To display them, he leased this 28,000-square-foot warehouse, which came complete with nesting pigeons and gaping holes in the floorboards, and has turned it into one of the largest photography galleries in the country.

Upon entering the building - which is spruced up but still very much a warehouse, with exposed beams, aluminum tubing and a high wooden ceiling - I'm disappointed to see several of the gallery's subdivided rooms shrouded in darkness. I peek into one just to see what's in it, and a light flickers on, illuminating a series of Man Ray photographs. The room is completely silent, and for the moment, I'm the only one viewing the pictures. I suppose this is what it feels like to be a multimillionaire art collector surveying my private stash.

It's a sensation that most visitors can experience: Admission to Pier 24, which opened last March, is free and limited to just 20 people during each two-hour appointment slot.

The gallery's current show runs through February and supplements Pilara's collection with photos owned by his friend Bob Fisher, son of the founders of the Gap. I'm no art critic, but I realize that it's unheard of to see this many marquee works in a single gallery, much less to get a practically private viewing. The show has no announced theme, but as I wander from Walker Evans's iconic images of the Great Depression to Robert Frank's series on postwar communities to Arbus's intimate portraits of transvestites, giants and midgets, it feels something like a retrospective of the entire 20th-century American experience.

I'm also just as taken with the photos I don't recognize: a fry cook with a Charlie Chaplin mustache posing in front of a 15-cent-sandwich shop; a '50s-era older woman lounging outdoors on a beat-up sofa; an octogenarian sitting alone with a revolver in a nursing home. I have no idea which of these photos are famous and which are unknown; I just know which ones move me. And that is the point, as all the photos are presented without commentary or even mention of the artists' names.

"I know that when I go to a museum, I walk up to an image, and then two seconds later I read the description and my perspective narrows," says Pilara. "I want the people who walk in here to read through their gut, not their eyes."

At the end of the gallery there's a full-color photo of tourists crammed into a small room at Paris's Musee d'Orsay, clutching audio tours to their ears, studying museum maps, surreptitiously photographing famous impressionist works. I take it as a subtle rebuke to the museums of the world, reminding us that viewing great art doesn't have to be a crowded, assembly-line experience. At Pier 24, it's just the photos and me.

Spiegel is a New York-based food and travel writer and the co-editor of the food blog Endless Simmer.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company