The Best Photography Galleries, Musuems, and Exhibits in San Diego

It's easy to be inundated by photography today, all one needs to do is go online to your favorite social media site and start scrolling away. But I think it's extremely important to visit galleries and museums in person to see photography. Online pictures simply don't have the impact of viewing a physical print where one can stand back and take in the work as a whole or get close and see all the details. Furthermore because of display differences, the colors may not be exactly right (and sometimes they are significantly off). The print shows you exactly how the artist intended their work to be viewed.

Galleries and museums typically have curated exhibits which explore a theme in depth. These might be from a single artist or diverse set of works from multiple photographers. If you want to view photography at the highest level, there is no better source than a curated exhibit where each piece is carefully chosen by someone knowedgeable about the theme and presented in context.

Even though I'm a landscape photographer, I enjoy viewing photographs in many genres especially ones that I don't participate in myself. I never photograph fashion but I enjoy looking at good fashion photography by photographers such as Testino, Penn, Newton, or Avedon. I don't do portraiture but I love looking at portraits by masters such as Karsh, Gorman, McCurry, Newman, or Leibovitz. I take every opportunity to see works like these in person. In San Diego, we are lucky in that there are multiple galleries and museums where we can view photography across many genres. In this article, I'll go over the best places to see photography.

Coastal Trail. Sea lavender adorns this walking path to the beach. Fine art limited edition print of 50.

Commercial Galleries

San Diego has a number of commercial galleries that represent artists with the goal of selling their artwork to the public. These are for profit enterprises and they use the income from sales to pay commissions to the artists and support the gallery itself. Typically they have a retail space where you can view the work and they may run special exhibitions on a regular basis. They can either represent a group of artists or a single artist who is usually the owner of the gallery.

Here is a list of commercial galleries in San Diego:

Joseph Bellows Gallery
7661 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, CA 92037

The Bellows gallery focuses on vintage and contemporary photography especially from American photographers. The collection includes work by Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz, George Tice, Edward Weston, and Minor White among many others.

Thomas Mangelsen Gallery
7916 Girard Ave, La Jolla, CA 92037

Mangelsen is a renowned American wildlife and nature photographer. He started photographing during the film era and he has a very natural style to his work.

Peter Lik Gallery
1205 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037

The Lik gallery has variety of subjects but he is known for highly saturated scenic, landscape, and travel photography. Lik is one of the most successful photographers at selling prints and operates multiple galleries worldwide.

Aaron Chang Gallery
415 S Cedros Ave Unit 110, Solano Beach, CA 92075

Aaron Chang is a local photographer and primarily concentrates on ocean and surf imagery.

Ian Ely Gallery
1141 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA 92037

Ian Ely has work in a similar style to the Lik gallery. In my opinion, some of this work crosses over into digital art as opposed to straight photography.

National Gallery of Fine Arts
1205 Prospect Street, Suite A, La Jolla, CA 92037

This used to be the National Geographic Fine Art gallery but due to contract disputes the parties have terminated their relationship and gone their separate ways. I have not visited the gallery in several years but it still appears to be focusing on similar themes and subjects (nature & cultural photography).

Cornel/Henry Art
7514 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, CA

This is a small gallery with a focus on emerging LGBTQ artists.

MK Envision

This gallery represents several San Diego photographers with an emphasis on beach and local scenes. They used to have a retail space in Liberty Station but have since changed to be an online gallery only.


There are very few museums that are entirely dedicated to photography but in San Diego we are fortunate to have the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA). The museum's permanent collection is very large and has approximately ten thousand photographs spanning the entire history of photography including daguerrotypes, albumen prints, pictorialist works, to contemporary art by modern masters. The museum is located in Balboa Park and there is no admission charge but they ask for a voluntary donation (suggested $10). Note that the museum used to be a separate entity but merged with the San Diego Museum of Art (the museums are still physically separate although they are quite close to each other).

Beyond MOPA, you can find photographic work at other museums such as

  • San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla.
  • San Diego Art Institute, Balboa Park
  • San Diego Natural History Museum, Balboa Park

Note that while these museums may have photography in their collections, photography is not their sole or main focus. However they often have fantastic special exhibits which I'll try to see.

Urban Oasis. This hidden gem is Chicano Park in the Barrio Logan nieghborhood of San Diego. Fine art limited edition of 100 prints.

San Diego Fair Exhibition of Photography

Every year the San Diego Fair runs a photography competition and those passing a jury review become part of the largest and oldest print exhibition in the U.S. Typically there are about 1000 photos that hang in the gallery which were selected from as many as four or five thousand submissions. The exhibit is available free with admission to the fair which usually runs from June through the July 4th weekend (check their website for exact dates). I've been involved with the exhibit for several years, first as an entrant and then as jury member and speaker. Although I am admittedly biased, I think it is a great exhibit and not to be missed.

While selling photography is not the purpose of the exhibit, individual photographers can choose to make their work available for sale and the staff will give you the photographer's contact information.

Cooperative Art Galleries and Art Collectives

Both cooperative art galleries and art collectives are organizations run a by group of artists who come together to collaborate and share resources. They differ slightly in that a coop gallery is focused on a physical space where artists together create a venue for exhibiting and selling their works. In contrast, a collective is focused on collaborative projects and supporting each others artistic endeavors. Although there may be a physical gallery space, it is not required and selling may or may not be a main focus.

There are several coops and collectives in San Diego:

Photographers Eye Collective
326 East Grand Ave, Escondido, CA 92025

This is a collective focused on promoting the work of local photographers.

North Coastal Art Gallery
300 Carlsbad Village Dr., Suite 101, Carlsbad, CA 92008

This is a coop gallery run by the Carlsbad Oceanside Art League. Photography is one of many mediums represented.

Spanish Village Art Center
1770 Village Place, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101

Spanish Village is an artist collective located in Balboa park with about 40 studios which are shared by many artists. As part of a deal with the city, the artists are provided an affordable place to work, exihibit and sell their art. In exchange, they have to provide various forms of community outreach and for example, must keep their studios open to the public. There are few photographers among the membership and Gallery 21 (Studio 21) in the center often has exhibitions featuring photography.

Twilight Irregularity. The badlands of Azna Borrego viewed from the Font's Point lookout. Fine art limited edition print of 50.

Art Fairs

San Diego is home to a number of art fairs that run through-out the year. Although they are open to all types of fine art, photography is one of the more popular categories and you can typically see the work of one or two dozen photographers in a given show. See this article for a list of art festivals in San Diego.

Final Thoughts

Although San Diego is a smaller market than say Los Angeles or New York City, we have our own vibrant and distinctive photographic & arts community. I think our local community, comprising both amateurs and professionals, operates at a high level with world-class talent. I'd encourage you to visit not only the biggest galleries but also some of the smaller venues where local photographers will exhibit their work.

If you see something that I've missed, please feel free to send me a note.

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