Pirkle Jones - Photographer

Born in 1914 in Shreveport, LA, Jones’ career began with the purchase of a Kodak Brownie when he was seventeen years old, commenced in the 30’s when his photographs were both published and exhibited internationally in Pictorialist salons and publications. He served for four years in the US Army during WWII, with the 37th Division at Guadalcanal, Munda, and Bouganville in the South Pacific. In 1946, after his war service Jones entered the first class in photography at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). There he met a community of artists—among the instructors were Ansel Adams, Minor White, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange, - that would help to shape and define his career. Jones also worked as Ansel Adams’ assistant (1947-1953) and the two photographers forged a life-long friendship.

Pirkle Jones, Marin County, by Ansel Adams, 1948. Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, Point Lobos by F.W. Quandt, 1948.

Dorothea Lange approached him in 1956 to collaborate on a photographic essay Death of a Valley. The essay chronicled the demise of the Berryessa Valley, which disappeared when the Monticello Dam was completed. Jones and Lange photographed during the community’s final year, as a way of life experienced for generations came to an end. Jones later described the project with Lange as “one of the most meaningful photographic experiences of my professional life.”

In 1958, Pirkle Jones was documenting the building of Candlestick Park and the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga, California for the architect John Bolles. In 1959, collaboration with Ansel Adams developed to produce an expanded essay on “The Story of a Winery” completed in 1963; illustrating the growth of a new industry as well as telling the story of winemaking. The pair produced a group of images that ultimately became a publication and an exhibition, which the Smithsonian Institution toured.

Pirkle Jones engaged in several collaborations with his late wife, the writer-photographer Ruth-Marion Baruch, over the course of their 49 year marriage. In 1961, the pair was drawn to a small, forgotten town located on the banks of the Sacramento River and the former gateway to the gold country. Entitled Walnut Grove: Portrait of a Town, it became an essay of discovery for both photographers and was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A landmark documentary series began in 1968 when Ruth-Marion was introduced to Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Black Panther party leader Eldridge Cleaver. Jones and Baruch photographed the Black Panthers from July through October 1968 in the Bay Area with the goal of “creating a better understanding of the Black Panthers.” An exhibition at the De Young Museum drew over 100,000 people. The two photographers overcame many obstacles to produce The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers,” which was published by Beacon Press in 1970.

Seasoned by that experience, Pirkle found himself drawn to a houseboat community on the Sausalito waterfront, known as Gate 5. A mecca for free-spirited people seeking alternative life-styles, Gate 5 became a unique photographic odyssey for the mature photographer.

Ever drawn to his own backyard, Jones’ mature eye also captured candid street scenes and workers at their jobs, the great city of San Francisco and the grand northern coast of California. In the last two decades, Pirkle Jones returned to the challenge of nature, to create order in the mysterious and chaotic natural world, which he has inhabited for so long. In 1978 he produced a Rock series followed by a Salt Marsh series and then by the Mt. Tamalpais series . He has been on an interior voyage of discovery and he wrote, “After all these years I [had] finally found some things in nature in which I could find some satisfaction…Images that I feel are my own.

"Pirkle Jones: Sixty Years in Photography" the artist’s retrospective, of more than 120 works was mounted by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2001, with the companion book Pirkle Jones California Photographs published by Aperture.

Pirkle Jones (Bruce Weber)

In 2003, the Berkeley Art Museum mounted the exhibition Black Panthers 1968 in collaboration with Ruth-Marion Baruch and with the companion book published by Greybull Press in October 2002. His work is also represented in the California Historical Society’s exhibition At Work running through December 20. Pirkle was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute where he taught until 1994. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will open an exhibition on December 20, 2003.

Photos from: Pirkle Jones: California Photographs: Aperture.

(Note: Pirkle Jones died on March 15, 2009 in San Rafael, CA.)

Obituary from The New York Times


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