There is a fascinating air of indulgence about San Francisco’s Pier 24. It’s the largest exhibition space in the world dedicated solely to photography, and it displays a broad range of work, including some of the medium’s most iconic, instantly recognisable images. Yet it manages to wed this major-museum-style gravitas with the idiosyncrasies and singular vision you would expect from a smaller, private gallery.

Located along the Embarcadero waterfront directly under the Bay Bridge, the 28,000sqft former warehouse sat derelict for 20 years before it was taken over by local investment manager Andy Pilara. He reopened it in 2010 as a temple to photography, displaying work from his own extraordinary collection alongside select images from other sources.

Pilara’s backing has enabled Pier 24 to be as free as possible from the financial and bureaucratic constraints common to most cultural institutions. To start with, there is no admission charge, making this far and away San Francisco’s best arts freebie. But while you don’t have to pay to get in, you do have to plan ahead. Pier 24 is only open Monday through Thursday, and only 60 visitors – in three two-hour shifts – are admitted each day. Appointments (which are required) can be done up to 30 days in advance on the gallery’s web site.

At the front desk (after security confirms that you're on the guest list), you’re given a detailed catalogue of the current exhibit – an invaluable tool given that there is no written information of any kind on the gallery walls. No names of the photographers, no titles or dates or locations – nothing. Pilara and gallery director Christopher McCall don’t want anything to distract the viewer’s eye from the photos.

At first blush, this could seem frustrating and pretentious. Photographs may be works of art, but they are also, in one way or another, documents that draw meaning from the context in which they’re created. But as you carry the catalogue from room to room, you begin to realize that it functions as an ideal companion, with various advantages over wall text. You never have to squint or stoop or wait for another reader to move out of the way. The book’s descriptions, primarily statements from the photographers, are seldom longer than a paragraph, but in a few cases they’re more extensive than anything that would fit comfortably on a wall. And the catalogue gives you an overview of the gallery’s 18 rooms, which helps you get your bearings and navigate your way through the show.

The lack of signage also heightens the underlying sense that Pier 24 is something more personal than most art exhibition spaces. The photos in the current exhibit, About Face, are primarily taken from Pilara’s collection. Just like you probably don’t have labels for the art in your living room, he doesn’t have them for the art here.

About Face, which runs until 30 April, focuses on portraiture, with each room presenting a different take on the theme. There are famous images from the pantheon of great photographers – Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Robert Frank – and it’s evident that Pilara has a particular affection for Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. But there are also curatorial choices that take liberties you wouldn’t find in a more conventional exhibition space. One room is filled with nothing but Depression-era mug shots, while another has a wall covered with scores of self-portraits by Lee Friedlander, clustered together as if they’d been hung by a particularly indulgent grandmother.

Another way in which Pier 24 differs from most exhibition spaces is that it operates on a relaxed schedule. Only after About Face comes down will Pilara and McCall get down to the nuts and bolts of arranging the next show, which McCall said will have “sense of place” as its theme. While they’re at work, Pier 24 will remain closed. At this point McCall expects them to reopen sometime in midsummer – but only after they’ve come up with something that satisfies their own high standards.