GLAMi nomination: SFMOMA Photography Interpretive Gallery

nominated by: Chad Coerver, SFMOMA, USA
institution: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
category: Exhibition Media or Experience

SFMOMA Photography Interpretive Gallery

One hallmark of our current condition is that we encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of images every day, but we look at them less and less. The mission of SFMOMA’s Photography Interpretive Gallery is to advance visual literacy, encouraging visitors to cast a more critical eye on the flood of visual images they constantly make and receive. We provide visitors with a series of interactive experiences to help them better understand the social context of the medium; the photographers’ creative impulses and working methods; and the ways in which pictures subtly shape our perceptions of ourselves and our world.

Developed in partnership with Second Story for the opening of the new museum (May 2016), the 1,500-square foot Photography Interpretive Gallery is located within the Pritzker Center for Photography on SFMOMA’s third floor. Positioned in a highly visible location and contiguous with the museum’s only coffee bar, it functions simultaneously as educational center and gathering place. Free WiFi and comfortable seating encourage guests to linger, discuss, and reflect. All digital exhibits within the space are intended to be rewarding as both active forms of engagement and passive viewing experiences—allowing for varying levels of visitor motivation and interest.

The three digital interactives within SFMOMA’s Photography Interpretive Gallery each explore photography from a different angle:

The View from Here

The birth of California and the birth of photography were nearly simultaneous, and their histories are deeply intertwined. Some of the most prevalent and alluring mythologies of California have been shaped by the camera, and the evolution of photography has been shaped by photographers grappling with the challenge of capturing the state’s breathtaking vistas and evolving culture.
Turning a pair of dials, a nod to the mechanics of the camera, visitors navigate through a series of narratives providing insight into seminal photos from the museum’s collection. The screen-based content is currently organized around three thematic nodes: “Yosemite” invites visitors to consider how photographs can make, and maybe unmake, a place, by examining the role the camera played in the park becoming an international icon of natural beauty (so much so that heavy traffic now threatens the famed valley the camera once helped to preserve). “Farmland” explores how pictures have both promulgated the myth of California as an agricultural paradise and articulated the profound tensions around land use and migrant labor. Finally, “San Francisco” examines photography’s integral role in selling and/or documenting the city as it has gone through a series of booms and busts. One key focus is photography’s role in transforming the 1906 earthquake into the first international media disaster spectacle.



Designed by Adobe, Self-Composed responds to the selfie craze in an unexpectedly challenging way. The digital interface encourages visitors to use objects in their pockets and purses to create compositions resembling historical photograms. As they place objects on a glass surface, a hidden camera directed toward them fills the resulting negative space with fragments of their visages and the surrounding context. When a visitor is finished, he or she can elect to receive a thermal paper printout of the composition, which also includes the url of a high-res file available for download. More than 110,000 images have been created since the new SFMOMA opened in May 2016, and 40% of the high-res files have been accessed. Visitors’ images have been featured on, on museum screens, and on social media channels (#selfcomposed). (For an in-depth account of the SFMOMA-Adobe collaboration, see this essay by Keir Winesmith, SFMOMA’s head of web and digital platforms)


In Their Own Words

During the museum’s three-year closure, we dispatched our video team around the
world to create approximately 40 new mini-documentaries (3-5 mins/ea) addressing
photographers’ creative journeys and diverse artistic processes. Subjects include Richard Learoyd’s giant camera, Alec Soth’s pictures of loneliness in Silicon Valley, and Susan Meiselas’s chronicling of civil wars in Central America. This exhibit offers visitors the opportunity to select individual artist videos or thematic playlists using a jukebox-like interface. A speaker array strategically integrated into the space ensures an intimate and seamless A/V experience.


SFMOMA Photography Gallery, “Self-Composed” and “In Their Own Words” exhibits


SFMOMA Photography Gallery, “Self-Composed” exhibit


SFMOMA Photography Gallery, “The View from Here” exhibit (screen detail)


SFMOMA Photography Gallery, “The View from Here” exhibit


SFMOMA Photography Gallery, “In Their Own Words” exhibit


SFMOMA Photography Gallery, looking south toward Siteglass cafe


SFMOMA Photography Gallery, looking north toward the galleries


Creative direction: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Exhibition and environmental design: Second Story
Fabrication: David Bertman Designs
A/V Integration: BBI Engineering
Self-Composed design and development: Adobe
Video production: 32K Productions, Drew Christie, Tim Kerns, Richard Robertson
SFMOMA Photography Interpretive Gallery exhibits are generously supported by Bank of
the West. Additional support has been provided by Nion McEvoy and grants from the NEH
and IMLS. Bloomberg Philanthropies is the lead sponsor of SFMOMA’s digital initiatives.