CHRIS MCCALL: Caring for culture
Interview by Andrea Blanch
ANDREA BLANCH: First I’d like to ask how you would describe Pier 24 Photography, because people describe it differently.
CHRIS MCCALL: Essentially, it’s an exhibition space for photography, not a traditional museum by any means. All of our shows originate from the Pilara Foundation Collection, which was established by Andy and Mary Pilara. While we do show some borrowed works, the Pilara Foundation Collection is at the heart of what we do here. We also have a visiting artist program that is co-presented by California College of the Arts, SFMOMA and the Headlands Center for the Arts, which includes a photography prize and residency.
Our working model for exhibitions is distinct from most traditional museums—in a way, it is inverted. Our first priority is putting up the best exhibition. Once the exhibition is up, we do our scholarship, working on essays and publications. Most institutions work on the research and the catalog for several years, and then the exhibition follows.
ANDREA: And how does that work to your advantage?
CHRIS: It’s just a different model. In the process of planning and hanging the exhibition, discoveries are always made, and connections emerge that might have been on the periphery. That is the power of photography—you are not going to see all the connections before the work is on the walls. Working this way allows us to respond to these shifts and discoveries. For our catalogs, I typically write a foreword and then we bring in outside writers to look at what we’ve done to interpret the medium. We know each viewer completes the work, or at least sees things uniquely based on their visual background, so we don’t try to force a singular view on it. We leave it open for interpretation.
ANDREA: Well, I told you Vince Aletti thinks you’re the best curator in the country.
CHRIS: When my Associate Director, Allie Haeusslein told me that, I thought she was pulling my leg.
Knowing Vince sees me that way makes me feel like an actor winning an Oscar. One of the greatest
privileges of working at the Pier is that I get to talk to exceptional curators, photographers, critics and writers. It’s been one of the most significant parts of my education around the medium. I get to ask questions of the people who helped define photography’s history, and Vince is definitely one of them.
ANDREA: What is the present curatorial thinking? How has it changed, and how does that affect what you do at Pier 24?
CHRIS: That’s a tough question, because it’s different from a lot of institutions. I studied photography at a state school in Pennsylvania, and then went to California College of the Arts. When I started working with Andy and Mary Pilara, I’d never worked in a gallery or museum. We had initially thought of bringing in outside curators. When that didn’t happen, I just fell into the role because it had to get done. Since I’ve never taken a photo history course in my life and didn’t go to school for curatorial studies, I didn’t have any preconceived notions guiding the way I should install photographs on the wall.
Even before the Pier opened, Andy and I discussed the importance of staying flexible and not feeling like there’s one way to exhibit photographs. With that said, we don’t take liberties with the installations of some artists’ works, like Robert Adams and Diane Arbus. But we do take risks with some pictures, and not just for the sake of it. And in some cases, like with Lee Friedlander’s Self- Portraits, he thinks this is how the work should be shown going forward.
We try to keep our guests engaged in a 28,000-square-foot space with 17 galleries. These are very big shows, so you need some surprises around corners and things that re-engage the guests. If we’re doing a very dense hanging in one room, the next room will likely have a little more breathing room, giving the viewer a chance to rest.
ANDREA: What are the benefits of a salon-style hanging?
CHRIS: In the current show, for example, I installed the 85 photographs comprising Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful in undulating vertical columns. This felt appropriate because Winogrand was such an obsessive shooter. The story is that when he passed away, there were 2,000 little rolls of undeveloped film. We wanted the installation to suggest the way he digested the world, shooting and capturing everything around him. The right context can elevate how a viewer under- stands an artist’s work. And we want the artist’s voice to come to the forefront.
A lot of forethought goes into these hangings. In this instance, I knew I wanted the columns to be really clean. If you look at the installation, the vertical frames are the same width as the horizontal, so there’s way more white space around them. We decided the walls would be painted black and we would use that same paint on the work’s frames so that the frames would virtually disappear. You can also see in the installation image that every column has a different center line, which helps eliminate any obvious pattern that could emerge.
To read the full article, click here.