After a three-year closure, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened May 14, 2016 to stunning crowds. Two weeks later, I made it there, and what I found is a museum that has a clear sense of photography’s importance to both contemporary art and the history of the West. The Pritzker Center for Photography purportedly tripled the amount of space the museum dedicated to photography, and its prime location on the third floor, just up from the main entrance to the museum, suggests MoMA’s commitment to the photographic arts. Their current exhibitions, California and the West and About Time, both offer work that just about anyone can appreciate. Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and other blue chip, crowd favorites certainly ensure that museum visitors will understand the significance of the collection, while the inclusion of artists who are perhaps less well-known outside of photography circles will demonstrate to those same visitors the diversity and depth of the medium. A large selection of Jim Goldberg’s series Rich and Poor is especially noteworthy. The work is moving, with each image beautiful in its own right, but made especially poignant with accompanying text written by the subject in the photo. Created in the early 1980s, its mirroring of contemporary social class concerns highlights the smart curation for this important opening. I don’t think it could have been done any better.
San Francisco has an established photographic history, with innumerable artists traveling through in their explorations of the West and more than a few who have called the city home for some period of time. This community connection means that area galleries often have emerging photographers on display. Near the Financial District, Joel B. Garzoli Fine Art specializes in early American painting and sculpture, but the proprietor also has a keen eye for contemporary photography. He carries John Wimberley, whose work is widely collected, especially on the west coast, but it is his promotion of newer talent that bears comment. Renee Peck’s ghostly portraits deserve mention, as do Randolph Langenbach’s complex photographic reworkings of classical architectural scenes. However, an exhibition of the work of Eli Geller, a bay-area photographer who works in lith prints, occupied most of my time. The images are created on film, with no digital manipulation, but Geller’s lith printing process results in work that looks almost like an etching. It conveys a certain nostalgia and hearkens to historical photographic processes, while the warm tones mitigate an otherwise haunting effect. It’s hard to experience the work without being convinced that the person who made them loves the process of making photographs, and perhaps more importantly, making the viewer yearn for a landscape that seems somehow just out of reach, but not impossible to find.
Garzoli’s offerings alone are worth a trip into the bay area if you’re nearby, but add the other established galleries and MoMA’s remarkable commitment to photography, and San Francisco becomes a must-visit for anyone interested in the art form, no matter your current location. MoMA has done the field a great service by asserting photography’s importance to audiences who otherwise might not even consider it, and the bay area art scene, I hope, will benefit from it.
Roger Thompson is Senior Editor for Don't Take Pictures. His features have appeared in The Atlantic.com, Quartz, Raw Vision, The Outsider, and many others. He currently resides on Long Island, NY, where he is a professor at Stony Brook University.