Pritzker Photo Gallery a Key Feature at SFMOMA

by Sura Wood

Anticipation is steadily building as the date of SFMOMA’s reopening approaches.

SFMOMA’s ambitious, $305 million expansion, designed in partnership with architecture firm Snohetta, took three years to complete. The imposing, 235,000-square-foot addition to the existing 1995 Mario Botta-designed building features glass walls, windows with city views, three times the previous exhibition space—some of which will be used to display works from the Doris and Donald Fisher collection—a half-dozen sculpture terraces and many more enhancements.

Among the most significant is the 15,000-square-foot Pritzker Center for Photography, created to showcase works from SFMOMA’s extensive collection as well as a growing list of new acquisitions and promised gifts from donors.

Occupying most of the third floor, the Pritzker Center is the largest gallery, research and interactive space exclusively devoted to photography in an American art museum. SFMOMA—one of the first institutions to recognize photography as fine art—has 17,800 works that date from the mid-19th century through the present.

“The most profound change—and the most exciting one—will be the level of access for our audience,” says SFMOMA curator of photography Corey Keller, who organized “About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change,” one of two inaugural exhibitions in the gallery. “We have a tremendous permanent collection, only a fraction of which is on view at any time, and now we’ll be able to triple the number of pictures on view.” For “About Time,” a daunting undertaking incorporating over 160 images, Keller drew from 180 years of photography, reflecting on themes of permanence and obsolescence, history and memory, and the elusiveness of time in a medium that has been in a state of flux since its invention. Culled from the museum’s permanent collection, it encompasses a range of formats—from daguerreotypes to slide projections to video—and is divided into eight fluid sections that feature works by an eclectic roster of artists including Julia Margaret Cameron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martin Munkacsi, Dawoud Bey, Phil Chang, Owen Kydd, Nicholas Nixon, Simon Norfolk, Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Adams and Eugene Atget.

A through-line in the show is the concept of arresting time; that is, the photograph as a bid for immortality and a vehicle for preserving a fleeting moment. “Photography has always been about death or trying to combat the inevitable,” notes Keller. “In the 19th century people took pictures of themselves because life was short and photography was permanent.” Childhood and its ephemeral nature, a fixation in an era when only 50 percent of children lived beyond the age of five, is romanticized in Cameron’s napping toddler (“My Grandchild,” 1865), and “Xie Kitchin” (1872), Lewis Carroll’s portrait of his favorite model, an angelic little girl who inspired “Alice in Wonderland,” resting on a divan. Those images share a gallery with a pair of post-mortem daguerreotypes, and a set of unfixed light-sensitive pieces by contemporary L.A. artist Phil Chang. Chang’s evanescent works, which address a different type of vanishing, begin to disappear the moment they’re mounted on the wall and completely fade to black within eight hours. Two groups of his photographs will be up during the course of the show; one will be announced to the public in advance, the other will not.

A section called “Decisive Moment,” a term coined by photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe narrative complexity or drama caught in a split second and given meaning by the camera, features Eddie Adams’ award-winning 1968 news photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong officer who has a gun pointed at his head—the image appearing to have been shot in the instant the trigger was pulled. Disasters as they’re transpiring also fit into this category, like Murray Becker’s 1937 photo of the Hindenburg catching fire minutes before it crashed.

“While It Lasts” considers the opposite of the decisive moment through digital composites, long exposures and time-lapse videos that explore duration. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s simultaneously beautiful and repulsive video, “A Little Death” (2004), starts out like a traditional Dutch still life painting of a dead rabbit hanging upside down by one leg, and then accelerates the process of decay.

A poignant suite of prints (1866) from George N. Barnard anchors the elegiac “What Happened Here” gallery. They depict the aftermath of Sherman’s Civil War campaign, not on the battlefield, but in the horrific destruction of the grand city that had been Charleston, South Carolina. The devastated landscape symbolizes the psychological wound the country suffered. Barnard shares the space with more recent photographers tackling similar subject matter.

Several artists investigate the relentless march toward mortality. Nancy Burson rehearsed growing older with the aid of make-up and wigs, a project that resulted in five self-portraits that show her at 18, 30, 45, 60 and 70. Nicholas Nixon’s meditation on aging, “The Brown Sisters,” a series of black and white portraits of his wife and her three sisters that he shot annually from 1975 to 2014, is shown along with “every…Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters” (2004) by Idris Kahn, who scanned 29 years of Nixon’s portraits of the Brown sisters, then layered and printed them in a single, blurry atmospheric image.

“The passage of time and memory are fundamental ideas that are accessible and meaningful in profound ways,” observes Keller. “If the show only makes you think about those large life questions, that’s fine, and if you then think about how those life questions intersect with photography, even better.”

Note: “California and The West: Photography from the Campaign for Art,” an exhibition of 200 recent and promised gifts, runs concurrently with “About Time.” The show charts changes in the Golden State’s landscape from 1856 to 2014, as well as the varying approaches photographers have taken in documenting those changes. Included are works by local icons Carleton Watkins, Edward and Brett Weston, Tina Modotti, Ansel Adams, Minor White and Dorothea Lange, among others, as well as experimental and contemporary artists.


Opens May 14

“About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change” through September 25; “California and the West” through
September 5.

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