The Pilara Foundation Collection comprises some 2000 photographs, most from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While the collection tends to be American in spirit, with significant holdings of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus, Europe, Asia and Africa are also represented in important works by August Sander, Daido Moriyama, and Zwelethu Mithethwa.
The collection’s organizing principle is the social and topographical changes wrought by industrialization. Photography’s capacity as a documentary tool supports this thematic as both a witness to such changes and as an industrial process in its own right. Images of human labor, such as Lewis Hine’s Breaker Boys of 1911, one of the earliest photographs in the collection, present photography as an agent of social change, as do images by Dorothea Lange. American race relations have a strong presence in the collection, with images such as Robert Frank’s Charleston, South Carolina, representing one of the most concise commentaries on the subject. Gender and sexual identity are also well represented in works by Peter Hujar and in series such as Garry Winogrand’s Woman are Beautiful, while Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust offers a grimmer commentary on the sexual revolution.
The industrial landscape itself is examined by artists such as Albert-Renger Patzsch and, more recently, Bernd and Hilla Becher. This tradition is continued in less systematic fashion in photographs by Lee Friedlander, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and Frank Gohlke. With recent dramatic changes in China’s economy, the urban landscape has become fertile subject matter for photographers such as Sze Tsung Leong, whose large-scale color photographs show the layers of China’s history, from ancient culture to Communism to Chinese-style capitalism.
Changing conventions in studio portraiture is another major theme. In Penny Picture Display, Walker Evans isolated an aspect of American vernacular life. That same decade, Mike Disfarmer of Heber Springs, Arkansas, began work as the kind of studio portraitist Evans had noted, forging a plain-spoken style in his approach to photographing his townspeople. Other authentic vernacular portraits in the collection include numerous series of mugshots, some taken in Southern prisons, others in cities like San Francisco and Paris; portraits of Africans taken during the 1950s and 1960s; and portraits of schoolchildren.
Arguably, a more self-consciously artistic approach to portraiture is evident in works by August Sander, whose early series of peasant farmers, known as a Stammappe, or portfolio of archetypes, formed the basis for his later epic project. A great treasure of the collection is Diane Arbus’s Box of 10 Photographs, one of only a few sets produced during her lifetime. Arbus, a great admirer of Sander, approached portraiture with an eye toward revealing the disparity between the sitter’s self-image and the self that actually presented to the world. A softer sensibility is conveyed in Judith Joy Ross’s civic portraits of schoolchildren and adults. Also in the collection are numerous self-portraits by Lee Friedlander as well as portraits by Richard Avedon and William Eggleston.
In addition to examples of Modernist and historical photography, the collection contains works by numerous contemporary photographers. Many of the same themes are continued yet with a greater emphasis on such postmodern issues as historical narrative and artifice. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Henry VIII and his six wives, the only full set in private hands, is another cornerstone of the collection. Phillip-Lorca diCorcia’s portraits, conceived in the gray zone between the staged and the accidental, suggest another approach to the constructed image. More recent work by younger artists, such as Alec Soth, Katy Grannan, and Jackie Nickerson employ the formality of previous generations of photographic portraitists while also incorporating motifs from the history of art.