Diane Arbus, Albino sword swallower at a carnival, Maryland, 1970
San Francisco, modern city of many miracles, a place where winter is warmer than summer. Already one of the great cities to experience photography, a giant new space opened up a short walk from the Ferry Building called Pier 24.
The current exhibit, the Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher, (extended through March 10, free, but make reservations ASAP) is like being in a fictional museum that treats modern photography as the old museums treat the old masters, each deserving his or her own gallery. But unlike the old museums, there’s no wall text, no names, no dates, no -isms.
There’s a large gallery each for Arbus, Eggleston, Friedlander and Winogrand. And Robert Frank, Man Ray, Walker Evans. There’s a whole gallery of Robert Adams that feels like a tucked away, secret room, where you will find yourself alone with the work. Their decision to only let 20 people at once creates a level of concentration that you can no longer have at most museums, yet I was left thinking maybe they had gone too far. I felt guilty. The Bechers are well-represented with ample space to take in the work up close, and at a distance. A few of the most famous Gurskys are on display. It’s an afternoon with the Motown boxset. You’ve heard these before, many times. But it’s Smokey Robinson, it’s Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, it’s “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”
Things that caught my attention, in no particular order:
- Early (1928-30) 6x9 contact prints from Walker Evans of abstract building compositions in New York. One wall of photos that shows Evans testing a camera and building confidence.
- Harry Callahan’s “Women Lost in Thought,” a large grid of street portraits from 1950. I’ve seen a few of these before individually, but never so many arranged in this way. The prints are exquisite, deep blacks; a modern masterpiece.
- A handful of Robert Frank’s series, Fourth of July, Coney Island, 1958
- Diane Arbus, Albino sword swallower. This is one of those photographs that I had seen in books, on the internet, but when you see it printed, it makes a critical difference. The image is obviously striking. Arbus is known for portraits of unique people, but holy shit, this albino woman has a sword in her mouth. Perhaps the difference between book and handcrafted print is that the “obvious” crucifixion aspect of the composition is given more depth by the details of the outfit, the extra sense of texture the print (you notice the hand pressing into the tent more). Also what’s so great about this photograph is the strength and static nature of the composition is offset by movement and a sense of action.
- A few of the greatest Winogrands from “The Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and Rodeo”
- A grid of Weston’s Nude on Dunes, 1936, next to the front desk. Similar to the Callahan series, to see a more complete view of these beautiful prints, comparing them next to each other, is very rare. (Is there even a book that collects them all?)
Who curated this massive exhibit of photographs, decided how to hang so many classics? Jeffrey Fraenkel, Andy Pilara, the Fishers? How about Google. Put the names Arbus, Eggleston or Friedlander into Google images and see what comes up. The algorithm determines the most linked-to images from thousands of sites, the most representative of the name. Indicative of this time and place, and the embarrassment of riches of San Francisco, the selection is as good as Google, but these are the real prints. It’s really Marvin.