Self-Guided Art Tours


This is only one in a series of self-guided Art Tours providing an easy and fun way to explore the thriving Bay Area art scene at your own pace. Each is complete with a printable map of destinations, and suggestions on how to plan your time, and where to stop and eat along the way.

Check out the other tours:

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Photoplay San Francisco

Last updated: November 2007


The title of this tour comes from Photoplay, one of the first film fan magazines. Founded in 1911 in Chicago, the magazine developed a powerful formula -- a combination of photo spreads accompanied by star interviews and hot gossip -- that set a precedent for almost all celebrity 'zines that followed. Circulation soared through the 1940s and was met by the public's growing interest in the private lives of celebrities. The magazine was renowned for its beautifully drawn or painted portraits of film stars on the cover; however, by 1937 portraits were almost exclusively photographs.

Photoplay San Francisco shows off the city's own star quality by highlighting places around the city to look at photographs, see films, and their close cousin, videos. We've mapped out a variety of spots across San Francisco to see the latest in contemporary photography to sites that house nostalgic images of the city's past -- and everything in between. It's all about looking at images -- moving in space or frozen in time.

This is a full-day adventure and could take up to eight hours, including breaks and transportation. You may want to break this up into two days if it seems a bit ambitious for one day. Before heading out, we suggest checking gallery Web sites for information on current and upcoming exhibitions, to confirm hours of operation, or to make an appointment. We encourage the use of public transportation and have included bus routes, but for those who prefer to drive we offer parking suggestions.

Note: Before you can view the collection at the North Baker Research Library, you must go through their photography binders and select the subject for the photos you wish to view (which could take hours if you allowed it.) However, by going to their Web site before visiting, you can do this ahead of time. Since there are thousands of photos to view, you can get a head start by clicking on the "Collections" tab, and then click the link for "The Photography Collection." Once you do the latter, you can view the titles by subject, street, and so on. After you decide what photographs interest you most, you can then write down the title of the binder you wish to view (e.g. SF -- Cemeteries -- Masonic), and give it to the librarian when you first get there. By doing this ahead of time, you will save yourself more time to look at the photos.

Here's a preview slideshow that you can watch at

Here are some videos that you might want to watch to give you a better background on photography in the Bay Area:

We couldn't think of a better way to begin the Photoplay Tour with a double dose of caffeine and celebrity at Dish and the San Francisco Film Society where they have an impressive display of star-studded photographs taken by local photographer Pamela Gentile. If you are an early bird, take note that the SFFS offices don't open until 10am.

If you take the #43/Munich & Geneva line, get off at the Presidio Blvd. and Letterman Dr. bus shelter where you will exit and walk to Lincoln Blvd. Head west on Lincoln several blocks to Mesa Street and turn left. Walk up about two blocks -- the San Francisco Film Center Offices will be on your right.

Grab a coffee at Dish, a neat little café serving up a wide range of homemade organic treats. Then browse Gentile's large format black and white prints prominently displayed on the first floor in the hallway outside Dish. Her portraits feature some of the most legendary directors in international cinema such Abbas Kiarostami and Akira Kurasawa mugging with their SFIFF award.

The next stop is the Musee Mechanique which is renowned for its collection of vintage coin-operated arcade machines, musical instruments and kinetic dioramas. Exit The Presidio through the Lombard gate and walk 3 blocks to the N.W. corner of Divisadero St. and Chestnut St., take the #30/Caltrain Depot line, get off at Columbus Ave. and Bay St. Walk one block east and turn left on Taylor. Walk to the end of Taylor to Pier 45, right behind Fisherman's Grotto #9.

In the back of the museum, you'll find an assortment of some of the earliest devices used to show moving images. Before cinema as we know it, there was the Praxinoscope (the successor of the Zoetrope) and the hand-cranked Mutoscope, a picture flipbook that operates on the same principle as the Rolodex. Such classic models were designed around theories of perception and persistence of vision. For only a quarter you can experience a (very tame) Peep Show featuring a dancing lady or a see few seconds of a Marilyn Monroe film. Don't forget to take a self-portrait in one of their many old time photo-booths..

Get another slice of the city's past at the Maritime National Historical Park and Visitors Center. Head to the historic waterfront hotel, The Argonaut, at the corner of Jefferson and Hyde, the center is located inside. With 9000 square feet of space the center is a veritable maze of information staffed by park rangers and guided by didactic photographic panels, rotating photography exhibitions and daily video screenings which tell of SF's colorful maritime past. At the entrance is the original Farallon Island Lighthouse Frensel Lens, impressive not only in size but in its beautiful crystal form.

If it's lunch time, there are the Fisherman's Wharf sidewalk stands offering crab and chowder -- extremely touristy, yes, but also very tasty! If seafood isn't your favorite fare or you don't want to eat outside, the Java House on Pier 40 serves breakfast and lunch all day until 5pm. It's definitely a dive but has great views and indoor sitting.

Well feed? Hop aboard a 49 Van Ness bus heading towards the Civic Center to dig through the San Francisco Public Library's Historical Photograph Collection of The Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center. Serving as the official archives for the City and County of San Francisco the center contains San Francisco's history in fragments, a researcher's dream of urban development plans, photographs, newspapers and assorted printed ephemera.

The Historical Photograph Collection on the 6th floor holds about 250,000 photographs from the 1850s to the present. Witness the radical change and growth of the city in the last century with before and after pictures of neighborhoods, altered landscape views and building construction sites. You can definitely get your Photoplay SF celeb fill with lush sepia-toned prints, and classy B/W pix of your favorite San Francisco personalities like Emperor Norton (yes, the Emperor of United States and Protector of Mexico!) or the notoriously cranky journalist and ghost story writer, Ambrose Bierce.

Time to switch gears to gallery hopping at 49 Geary, where every First Thursday the dozen or so galleries in the building turn their art openings into one mega-opening. There are at least four photo-centric galleries inside, so you'll encounter many styles, techniques, time periods and approaches to the discipline. You can take BART or MUNI underground from Civic Center Station two stops to Montgomery; exit walk down Market (away from the Ferry Building) about one block depending where you exit the station to Geary.

The Robert Koch Gallery on the 5th floor collects and exhibits Modernist and experimental work from the early 1920s and 1930s and by contemporary photographers. Go down to the 4th floor to see one of the largest private collections of Brett Weston photographs at the Scott Nichols Gallery. Their inventory is filled with works by the pioneers of California photography such as Imogen Cunningham. They balance this with exhibitions featuring established, up and coming and contemporary photographers.

A few doors down you'll find the Fraenkel Gallery, a space that presents exhibitions that explore the medium and its dynamic relationship to other disciplines. Here's a wonderful chance to expand your perspective of photography with works by artists as diverse as Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Diane Arbus and Adam Fuss. And Fifty Crows Gallery on the 2nd Floor provides a change of pace with an emphasis on documentary works that promote social awareness and change. Their compelling exhibitions and photo essays are a welcome and refreshing alternative to corporately mediated images.

Is time for an energy boost? Head to ultimate browser's paradise: the magazine stand. Grab a cup o' joe at the Fog City News, a tiny shop tucked into the bottom of a huge skyscraper at the corner of First and Market. The stand offers readers one of the best selections of international magazines and newspapers; their foreign publications boast over 700 titles alone. Chocolate lovers take note: they sell gourmet chocolate from local creators and worldwide chocolatiers. Head to Market St. and walk 2 big blocks towards the Ferry Building to First St.

Time for more digging at the photography archives at North Baker Research Library at The California Historical Society (CHS). From Fog City News walk south down First Street to Mission and turn right, the CHS is on Mission between New Montgomery and Third Sts. The CHS collection of daguerreotypes, albumen prints, stereo views and photographic albums tops a half million, mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth-century. The CHS is wonderfully organized, so you want to take advantage of that. Avoid being overwhelmed by options by narrowing your search to one or two subjects that interest you, that way you can tell the librarian the kinds of photographs you want see. What'll be? City street scenes, portraiture, printed ephemera, views of early California landscapes? It's all there. You can also find work by celebrated photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge, Minor White, and Carleton Watkins. Perfect for the serious researcher or for the curious.

Just across the street is SF Camerawork, a space devoted to contemporary photography and related media. For over thirty years they have produced countless noteworthy exhibitions, fostered educational programs, hosted artist talks and showcased emerging film and video artists. In addition to rotating exhibitions, they publish their own journal twice a year, so be sure to check their bookstore for the latest issue and peruse their selection of artist monographs, and volumes of critical essays on the subject.

Next up: See what's on view in the photography collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). From the time SFMOMA opened its doors in 1935, the museum began to collect and exhibit photography as a serious art form. Their immense collection spans modern to contemporary works and presents a wide range of subject matters and views from around the globe. Along with innovative photographic exhibitions, their permanent collection is a treasure trove filled with works by such photo-icons as August Sander, Brassai and Diane Arbus

If there's time, you'll want to check out SFMOMA's 4th Floor Media Art galleries, where you can see engaging video and related time-based media works by contemporary international artists. Have time for a film? Check with the information desk about the Public Program film series presented in the Phyllis Wattis Theater; films series are thematic and are sometimes presented in conjunction with specific exhibitions; show times vary.

Suggested side visit: While you're in the area you can get to know the technology behind film and photography with a look around Adolph Gasser, its on 2nd between Howard and Mission Streets. The repair and sales shop has been serving the Bay Area's photo needs since 1950. Popular with professionals and hobbyists alike, sales and rental of still and video cameras, lighting and motion picture equipment. Have a tech-fetish? Glass cases display an array of vintage cameras ripe for oogling.

You must be hungry! Luckily for you, the area has several options. Of course, there's always the food court at the Metreon ... but then there's Samovar Tea Lounge. From SFMOMA just walk across Yerba Buena Park and head to the Upper Terrace. The glass-encased building makes the interior light and airy, and allows you to take views of the city and the park. This unique teahouse offers traditional tea service of many cultures (Indian, Chinese and Russian, for example) and has an international menu of sweet and savory items to complement. Chose from organic and fair-trade teas imported from all over -- sample from pots of herbal, black and chai concoctions -- to re-energize before you head home. Note: They are only open to 6pm from Sunday through Wednesday but until 9pm the other nights.

Congratulations, you made it to the end of the Photoplay San Francisco tour!

Below you'll find contact information for each venue as well as our suggestions for parking and public transit for some of the destinations.

San Francisco Film Society
Where: 39 Mesa St., The Presidio
When: Monday-Friday 10am-4pm
Phone: (415) 561-5000
Cost: Free
Parking: Street

Dish Café
Where: 39 Mesa St., first level, The Presidio
When: Monday-Friday 10am-4pm
Phone: (415) 561-5000

Musee Mechanique
Where: Pier 45, Shed A at the end of Taylor St., Fisherman's Wharf
When: Monday-Friday 10am-7pm, Saturday & Sunday 10-8pm
Phone: (415) 346-2000
Cost: Free admission
Parking: Street, or try parking lot at corner of Beach and Jones

San Francisco Maritime Visitor Center
Where: Argonaut Hotel, 495 Jefferson St. at Hyde, Fisherman's Wharf
When: 9:30am-7pm (Memorial Day to September 30) and 9:30am-5pm (October 1 to May 27)
Cost: Free

Java House
Where: Pier 40, The Embarcadero
When: Monday-Friday 6am-5pm Saturday & Sunday 7am-5pm (Closing time may vary depending on baseball games)
Phone: (415) 495-7260

Fisherman's Wharf sidewalk stands
Where: North Point St., Fisherman's Wharf

San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library
Where: 100 Larkin (at Grove), 6th Floor
When: Monday-Friday 9am-6pm, Saturday 10-5pm
Phone: (415) 557-4400
Cost: Free
Parking: Civic Center Garage, 355 McAllister St., between Polk and Larkin, or Performing Arts Garage, 360 Grove St., between Franklin and Gough. Other Car Park Lots are at Grove/Gough (2 lots, corner of Market and 9th St.), at Polk/Hayes (2 lots, Polk between Fell and Hayes), at Golden Gate and Larkin, 399 Golden Gate Ave.

Fraenkel Gallery
Where: 49 Geary St., Suite 450, between Kearny Street and Grant Ave.
When: Tuesday-Friday 10:30am-5:30pm, Saturday 11-5pm
Phone: (415) 981-2661
Cost: Free
Parking: Sutter-Stockton Garage (enter from Stockton just north of Sutter or from Bush just east of Stockton), the Ellis-O'Farrell Garage (enter on Ellis between Stockton and Powell), or The Union Square garage right under Union Square (enter from Geary between Stockton and Powell)

Robert Koch Gallery
Where: 49 Geary St., Suite 550, between Kearny Street and Grant Ave.
When: Tuesday-Saturday 10:30am-5:30pm
Phone: (415) 421-0122
Cost: Free

Scott Nichols Gallery
Where: 49 Geary St., Suite 415, between Kearny Street and Grant Ave.
When: Tuesday-Saturday 11am-5pm
Phone: (415) 788-4641
Cost: Free

Fifty Crows Gallery
Where: 49 Geary St., 2nd Floor, between Kearny Street and Grant Ave.
When: Wednesday-Saturday 11-4pm
Phone: (510) 798-6566 or (510) 282-2622
Parking: Street

Fog City News
Where: In the basement of 455 Market St., between Fremont & First Sts.
When: Monday-Friday 8am-6pm, Saturdays 12pm-4pm
Phone: (415) 543-7400
Parking: Street

California Historical Society
Where: 678 Mission St., between New Montgomery and Third Sts.
When: Wednesday-Friday, 12pm-5pm
Phone: (415) 357-1848 ext.20
Cost: (415) 357-1848 ext.20
Parking: Fifth and Mission Garage, Mission St. between Fourth and Fifth Sts.; Museum Park Garage, Third and Folsom Sts.; St. Francis Place Garage, Third and Folsom Sts.; 55 Hawthorne Garage, 55 Hawthorne; Moscone Center Garage, 255 Third St. between Howard and Folsom Sts.; Hearst Garage, 45 Third St. between Mission and Market Sts.

SF Camerawork
Where: 657 Mission St., 2nd Floor, between New Montgomery and Third Sts.
When: Tuesday-Saturday, 12-5pm; Open late First Thursday of each month
Phone: (415) 512-2020
Cost: Suggested donation of $5 for general public, $2 for students and seniors; Free for SF Camerawork members; Free admission first Tuesday of each month.
Parking: See CHS parking options

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Where: 151 Third St., between Mission and Howard Sts.
When: Monday-Tuesday 11am-5:45pm, Closed Wednesday, Thursday 11am-8:45pm, Friday-Sunday 10am-5:45pm
Phone: (415) 357-4000
Phone: $12.50 adults, $8 seniors, $7 students, free for SFMOMA members & children under 12; Half-price admission Thursdays from 6-9pm; Free first Tuesday of each month
Parking: See CHS parking options

Adolph Gasser Photography
Where: 181 Second St., between Howard and Mission Sts.
When: Monday-Friday 9am-6pm, Saturday 10-5pm
Phone: (415) 495-3852
Parking: Free parking available across the street

Samovar Tea Lounge
Where: Upper Terrace in the Yerba Buena Gardens, 730 Howard St., between 3rd and 4th Sts.
When: Sunday-Wednesday 10am-6pm, Thursday-Saturday 10-9pm
Phone: (415) 227-9400
Parking: See CHS parking options

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