While “The Steins Collect” has been stealing the limelight at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this summer, shows like “Face of Our Time” are what make the museum’s curatorial efforts ring with contemporary relevance.
The exhibition features documentary photography by an exceptional quintet of artists — Bay Area photographers Richard Misrach and Jim Goldberg, along with Daniel Schwartz, Jacob Aue Sobol and Zanele Muholi.
Goldberg, an award-winning photographer and California College of the Arts faculty member, has long been examining life lived on the fringe, with a particular emphasis on understanding his subjects rather than just exposing them.
A framed portrait of a young girl, with long, dangling earrings and well-coiffed hair, hangs in a dilapidated room with scarred walls. The photo within a photo creates an eerie sense of abandonment; the title of the work, “Home of a Boy who Died Trying to Get to Europe,” confirms the somber mood.
The image is part of Goldberg’s project “Open See,” much of which explores the origins of Europe’s latest influx of immigrants, in this case people from Liberia, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The extreme conditions of Goldberg’s subjects evoke the palpable tension between life and death, while illustrating the inherent human desire for dignity alongside survival. Goldberg’s work often incorporates text contributions from his subjects, giving them an additional voice to tell their story.
By contrast, Misrach’s images are devoid of people, yet the voices of his subjects, and their fortitude, resound with astounding clarity.
Misrach’s series “Destroy This Memory” documents graffiti — images including phone numbers, forwarding addresses, prayers, obituaries and threats, such as “Looters will be shot” — left in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The photos capture a vast and extensive narrative of human endurance.
Zulu African artist and lesbian activist Muholi creates traditional portraits of members of the queer and transgender community of her home country, who are often at risk due to South African legislation. The large, dignified, black-and-white photographs relate potent strength and vulnerability.
The contemporary life of an ancient trade route is at the core of Swiss photographer Schwartz’s work, which strives to illustrate the rapidly changing conditions of life along the Silk Road, revealing the multifaceted, modern life of an ancient land.
Danish photographer Aue Sobol’s work is intimate and varied, with portraits of his Greenlandic girlfriend as well as views of the earthy realities of life in her remote fishing village. He has created a memoir both personal and global, illuminating a vanishing way of life on the far reaches of the planet.
IF YOU GO
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily and until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays, closed Wednesdays; show ends Oct. 16
Admission: $18 general, $12 seniors, $9 students, military with valid ID and children under 12 are free; half-price Thursdays after 6 p.m. and free first Tuesday of the month
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org