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Since its inception in 1979, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco has been at the forefront of situating photography in the art world. Here, its president reflects on this shift.
It’s hard to believe that just half a century ago, most museums and universities did not have photography departments or programs. Despite photography’s long-standing influence and impact, it has largely been excluded from the realm of fine art. Frish Brandt, now President of Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, recalls: “In the late 1970s, there was no such thing as a famous photographer. Maybe Ansel Adams and Edward Weston would qualify, but it was such a small audience.”
A few years after moving to San Francisco in 1974, Brandt got her start in photography at the Imogen Cunningham Trust. A decade later, she began working with Jeffrey Fraenkel, who founded Fraenkel Gallery in 1979. After officially joining the gallery in 1985, Brandt became partner in 1989 and president in 2015, crafting a path that did not previously exist.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s that recent, and we could still be pioneers,” she says, looking back at the era. “We weren’t alone but we were in a small group. San Francisco has always been very ‘photofilic’, shall we say. There were a few galleries here and a few in New York but at that point having a photography gallery was a recipe for disaster. Kenneth Baker moved out here to be the art reviewer for the Chronicle, and publicly said that photography is not art. He has since come around on that in a big way.”
Since its inception, Fraenkel Gallery has been at the forefront of situating photography in the art world, alongside artists of the pictures generation like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Louise Lawler. These artists used photography, but avoided labelling themselves as “photographers” – a highly effective move.
“People consider photography to be the medium of their generation, but they didn’t necessarily understand that it could also be art. They knew how to read a photograph, so that was in its favour and against it at the same time,” Brandt says.
“When Jeffrey reached out to Lee Friedlander in the first years of the gallery and offered to buy a few photographs, that was about as crazy as the museum guard at the New Documents show who decided to buy photographs. When you are doing it, it’s like a tightrope — you don’t look down. Being in California doubled our odds but we had so much latitude. We could choose the artists we wanted to show. I often say Jeffrey is the pilot and I’m the purser. There’s a shared vision.”
With a roster that includes luminaries such as Richard Avedon, Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Helen Levitt, Christian Marclay, Richard Misrach, Irving Penn, Alec Soth, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, to name just a few, Fraenkel Gallery has become a driving force in fine art photography.
“Jeffrey and I have been at this for a long time. People ask, ‘Aren’t you tired of it?’ but it just keeps getting interesting in new ways,” says Brandt. “Once we felt like we were part of establishing that photography is art, we started to experiment with it. We gradually started to blur the lines and look at photography as a philosophic medium.”
As Fraenkel Gallery continues to expand and grow, pushing the boundaries beyond the known, they look for artists who add to the equation. Quoting Aristotle, Brandt explains the gallery’s approach is predicated by the understanding that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
“We have different sensibilities and when we align, we learn a lot from each other. We choose work that generates thought, that offers a different way of using the medium and reflecting on it. Ultimately this is about relationships. We have such a long, deep commitment to the artists we show.”