Sandra S. Phillips was appointed curator of photography for SFMOMA in August 1987. A photographic historian and former curator of the Vassar Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie, New York, Phillips succeeded Van Deren Coke as head of one of the country's most active departments of photography. In acknowledgment of her considerable contributions to the museum, Phillips was promoted to senior curator of photography in 1999.
Phillips has organized, among other major SFMOMA exhibitions, History of Photography from California Collections (1989), which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography, and a 1989 retrospective of the eminent San Francisco photographer John Gutmann. Under her direction, the Department of Photography presented such acclaimed exhibitions as An Uncertain Grace: The Photographs of Sebastião Salgado (1990), Florence Henri: Artist-Photographer of the Avant-Garde (1990), Helen Levitt (1991), and Wright Morris: Origin of a Species (1992). In 1994 Phillips organized an important exhibition of the work of American photographer Dorothea Lange, the final photography exhibition in SFMOMA's former building on Van Ness Avenue. Phillips's first major exhibition in the museum's Mario Botta-designed facility was William Klein New York 1954-1955 (1995). She also contributed to the exhibition Public Information: Desire, Disaster, Document (1995) in collaboration with SFMOMA's curators of media arts and painting and sculpture.
Phillips organized and presented Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present (1996); Commonplace Mysteries: Photographs by Peter Hujar, Andrea Modica, and Bill Owens (1996); and Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence (1997), the first exhibition to examine historical and contemporary photographs taken as evidence. Philips also co-organized Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog (1999), the first museum exhibition to survey the work of the important postwar Japanese photographer, which traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, followed by venues in Switzerland and Germany. Together with guest curator John Szarkowski, Phillips oversaw Ansel Adams at 100 (2001), a major reexamination of the celebrated California photographer in commemoration of his 100th birthday. In 2003, Phillips organized Diane Arbus: Revelations, the first complete showing of the photographs, vintage prints, and writings by the artist. More recently, Phillips organized the exhibitions Larry Sultan: The Valley (2004); Taking Place: Photographs from the Prentice and Paul Sack Collection (2005); Beyond Real: Surrealist Photography and Sculpture from Bay Area Collections (2006); Robert Adams: Turning Back (2006); and Face of Our Time: Four Shows—Yto Barrada, Guy Tillim, Judith Joy Ross, Leo Rubinfien (2009). Most recently, Phillips organized Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective (2012).
Throughout her career, Phillips has combined curatorial activities with teaching, lecturing, and publishing. She taught history of photography at Mills College, Oakland; State University of New York, New Paltz; Parsons School of Design, New York; and the New School for Social Research, New York. During her years at SFMOMA, Phillips has lectured extensively at schools from San Francisco State University to Musashino Art University, Japan. In 2000 she spent six months at the American Academy in Rome studying the photography archives of the Vatican, and she continues to make regular research trips to Italy.
Phillips has authored or coauthored numerous exhibition catalogues, including Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog (1999), Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence (1997), Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present (1996), Dorothea Lange: American Photographs (1994), Wright Morris: Origin of a Species (1992), Helen Levitt (1991), Charmed Places (1988), Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray (1988), Eyes of Time: Photojournalism in America (1988), and André Kertész: Of Paris and New York (1985). Her articles and essays have appeared in such journals as DoubleTake and History of Photography, as well as in numerous books and catalogues edited by other scholars and institutions.
Phillips received a BA in art and art history from Bard College in 1967 and an MA from Bryn Mawr College in 1969. She earned a PhD in art history in 1985 from City University of New York, where she specialized in the history of photography and American and European art from 1849 to 1940.