Christopher McCall and Pier 24 Photography: The CCA Legacy Continues

Photography Program: Picture of Success at Pier 24Chris McCall (MFA Photography 2003) is the director at Pier 24 Photography

Christopher McCall (MFA Photography 2003) has spent the last seven years serving as the founding director at Pier 24 Photography, an exhibition space on the Embarcadero considered to be the largest in the world dedicated solely to photography.

It’s here where the Pilara Foundation Collection is housed -- a collection of more than 4,000 photographs established by Andrew and Mary Pilara that spans the history of the medium and its international breadth.

Since its inception in 2008, Pier 24 Photography has hosted seven exhibitions, including works by acclaimed photographers such as Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Thomas Demand, Lee Friedlander, Rinko Kawauchi, Henry Wessel, Garry Winogrand, and, most recently, Paul Graham.

The Pilaras’ goal was to create a space that would complement -- not replace -- other local arts organizations. They wanted to engage the community through exhibitions, publications, and public programs.

To accomplish this, admission to Pier 24 Photography is free by appointment, which McCall explains ensures a purposeful, quiet atmosphere where one can bask in solitude and roam the 28,000-square-foot pier in contemplative speculation about the art on the walls.

According to McCall: “Photographers have spent a great deal of time looking deliberately through a lens to develop their own visual languages. As a result, it requires viewers to devote a similar level of concentrated attention to begin to understand those languages.”

Faculty Inspires Next Generation

McCall credits his being “at the right place at the right time” to his former instructor and friend, renowned photographer Larry Sultan, the former Distinguished Professor of Art who joined the college in 1989 and served as the chair of Photography from 1993 to 1999. (Sultan succumbed to cancer in 2009.)

“Larry and [CCA President] Stephen Beal toured the pier with Andy [Pilara] during construction. In discussing what the pier might become, Larry suggested, ‘You should bring Chris McCall down here to talk with you about what he thinks.’”

McCall describes Sultan with great forethought. “He wasn’t my mentor . . .  necessarily -- that doesn’t do it justice. He was my friend, and he was brilliant.  . . . we used to meet up for drinks in the Mission, and we’d just talk. Not about work -- I talked enough about my work in class -- no, we talked about . . . life.”

McCall pauses to reflect: “Everyone loved Larry. We all wanted to study with him. He had a way of inspiring you -- of making you look deeper into the work to contemplate its meaning -- that is, what it means to you. The MFA program, much like CCA itself, really emphasized education beyond the walls of the classroom, encouraging students to collaborate and engage with the wider community around them.”

Frish Brandt (MFA Printmaking 1979), president of Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, also encouraged the Pilaras to enlist McCall, and after several meetings the Pilaras enlisted McCall to be the organization’s founding director.

After a substantial two-year remodel of the pier annex directly beneath the Bay Bridge, Pier 24 Photography opened in 2010, with McCall heading up all aspects of the organization.

CCA’s Leadership in Photographic Arts

In addition to Sultan and former CCA faculty member Jim Goldberg, whom McCall praises as his main influencers, he credits longtime faculty members Susan Ciriclio (who has taught color analog for 40 years) and Chris Johnson for shaping his success.

McCall also praises Dennis Leon Professor of Graduate Studies (Emeritus) Stephen Goldstine, who headed CCA’s graduate program from 1987 to 2003, for being “the reason why I came to CCA to study. Stephen’s influence is the bedrock upon which the Bay Area’s photography community is built. “Larry, Jim, myself, and many others are indebted to him for his tireless support and encouragement.”

When Goldstine brought Sultan and Goldberg on board as faculty members, it was during this time, roughly 1989–96, that CCA experienced what Goldberg calls a “golden age” in photography at the college, for faculty and alumni alike.

Goldberg adds: “They had a lot to do with how we taught and the ideas of how to be better artists and practitioners.”

Those ideas have given rise to successful artists like McCall.

“I’m really proud and happy for him,” says Goldberg. “I’m proud of him as a student and I know Larry would feel the same. He’s very generous to the community and CCA.”

CCA’s Faculty–Alumni Connection

From one generation to the next, the caliber of CCA Photography faculty members and alumni whose work has appeared in exhibitions at Pier 24 Photography reflects an undeniable lineage: Sultan, Goldberg, Kota Ezawa, Catherine Wagner, Hank Willis Thomas (MA, MFA Visual Criticism, Photography 2004); Todd Hido (MFA Photography 1996); John Chiara (MFA Photography 2004).

McCall explains: “What’s remarkable about this [CCA influence] is that it reflects how one generation of artists influenced the next, and how this current generation is shaping tomorrow’s most successful photographers.

"CCA is positioned as an inarguable leader in the photographic arts, producing some of the most celebrated, engaging, and talked-about photographers working today.

CCA breeds a community of thinkers -- those who are willing to think creatively and artistically. And these are today’s problem-solvers, because they are taking what the curriculum offers and continuing the thought process long after the degree.”

Larry Sultan Visiting Artist Program

Goldberg worked closely with McCall to establish the Larry Sultan Visiting Artist Program at CCA (currently overseen by Photography faculty member Abner Nolan), which is coproduced with Pier 24 Photography and SFMOMA to bring to campus prominent photographers, visual artists, lecturers, and writers working in photography-related media to give free public presentations, critique student work, and participate in events and projects.

The program operates in tandem with CCA’s undergraduate Photography Lecture Series, which together serve as a magnet for prospective photography students. Past artists include

McCall on Success

“I’d say I measure my success by what I hear guests saying when they visit Pier 24. We have educators, students, curators, and artists coming through here every week. And when they tell me what we’re doing is right, I know we’re successful.

"And when Andy and Mary [Pilara] see the great response we receive from the local and international communities -- from San Francisco residents to curators from abroad -- I know they consider that a benchmark for our success.

I don’t know if anyone can truly comprehend the complex impact of photography on our culture and the course of our history. But it’s a question we invite our audiences to consider when they visit.  . . . That’s our mission: to create a space to view and think about photography and its wider implications in our everyday lives.”


On and Off the Walls: A First Look at Pier 24

Pier 24 Publications (exhibition guides)

A Sense of Place