In Profile

Christopher McCall

BY Jean Dykstra, December 11, 2019

When Christopher McCall became the director of Pier 24 Photography, the San Francisco exhibition space that houses the permanent collection of the Pilara Foundation, the collection included about 2,500 objects. Today it includes more than 5,500 individual images (counting all of the images in individual portfolios), and Pier 24 is marking its tenth anniversary with two exhibitions: Looking Back, through April 30, 2020, with photographs and portfolios Andrew and Mary Pilara acquired before they founded Pier 24, and Looking Forward, with work they’ve collected since. Both are curated by Allie Haeusslein, the associate director of Pier 24, who McCall credits with being an invaluable colleague as well as the driving force behind the institution’s expanded publications program.

McCall came on board before the pier actually opened – after Andrew Pilara had leased the building but before he’d decided how the space would run. At the time, McCall was teaching photography at the Urban School of San Francisco, a private high school, and planning to open a gallery. He had conversations about what that would look like with people in the San Francisco photography community – Frish Brandt, Katy Grannan, the late Larry Sultan – who all suggested he meet Andrew Pilara. The two men did eventually meet, and they spoke at length about Pier 24 and how the space might best meet the needs of the photography community. McCall went home and wrote ten pages of notes detailing his ideas, which he subsequently shared with Pilara, who promptly offered him a job as director. McCall had never worked in a gallery or museum, but he says, “We’re cut from similar cloth as far as wanting things to be done at the highest level, being meticulous, and constantly re-evaluating whether we’re doing the best for the medium.”

With 17 galleries and 28,000 square feet of exhibition space, the pier has room to spare and a particular philosophy about how the collection should be viewed. Pier 24 is open by appointment only, and the number of visitors at any one time is limited, with the aim of creating a “quiet, contemplative experience,” says McCall. There are no wall texts or labels. “These photographers have developed their own visual languages,” he says, “and the way to understand those languages is by looking, not by focusing on a paragraph next to the image.”

A California transplant, McCall grew up outside of Philadelphia and came West to attend the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, where he studied with Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg, among others. He had first come to San Francisco to visit his longtime friend, photographer Ed Panar, whom he met when the two studied photography as undergraduates at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). McCall had taken photography classes at Henderson High School in West Chester, PA, but as a student who had always excelled at math, he went to IUP to study accounting. He quickly realized that while he was good at it, he wasn’t enjoying it. A preternaturally helpful senior in his dorm sensed his lack of enthusiasm, and he sat McCall down one evening and gave him a battery of “What Color Is Your Parachute” sorts of questions about what he wanted to do. “By the end, everything kept coming back to photography,” says McCall, who switched after his first semester to the photography program, adding, “It changed my life.