San Rafael, CA
Noted photographer and educator Pirkle Jones saw his work as combining the crisp technical mastery of Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and the social conscience of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), both of whom were his mentors and collaborators. He also collaborated with his wife Ruth-Marion Baruch (1922-1997), most notably on a series of photographs of Oakland’s Black Panthers. Jones was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1914. His family moved north when he was three, first to a farm in southern Indiana and ultimately to Lima, Ohio, where he graduated from high school. He purchased a Kodak Brownie camera at age seventeen. He moved on to more sophisticated cameras and showed his photographs at pictorial photography salons and camera clubs. Jones worked in a shoe factory in Lima from 1933 until he entered the U.S. Army in 1941, serving in the South Pacific. After discharge from the Army he entered the fine art photography department of the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA. now the San Francisco Art Institute), a program headed by Adams, with Lange, Edward Weston (1886-1958) and Minor White (1908-1975) among the faculty. There he met his classmate Baruch, whom he married after their graduation in 1949 at the Yosemite home of Adams. Jones worked as Adams’ assistant from 1949 to 1953 and taught at CSFA from 1952 to 1958. In 1956 Lange received a commission from Life Magazine to document the Berryessa Valley and the town of Monticello before they were flooded by Lake Berryessa, and asked Jones to work with her. The resulting portfolio of photographs “The Death of a Valley” was not published by Life but was published as a single issue of the photographic journal Aperture in 1960. The photographs were exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the S.F. Museum of Modern Art) and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1958 Jones documented the construction of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park baseball stadium and the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga, Calif., for John Bolles (1905-1983), the architect of both projects. The following year Adams and Jones collaborated on a larger portfolio of photographs about the winery later published as “The Story of a Winery,” which was also the name of a 1963 exhibition of the photographs at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. that then toured the country. Baruch and Jones collaborated on a 1961 photographic essay, “Walnut Grove: Portrait of a Town,” on the small Sacramento County town. They moved in 1965 from San Francisco to a Mill Valley, Calif., house designed by the architect Henry Schubert, known for his modernist designs. The following year Jones began teaching at Adams’ photographic workshops in Yosemite National Park, which continued through 1970. The photographic series on the Black Panthers emerged from conversations between Baruch and Jack McGregor, then the director of the de Young Museum. Encouraged by McGregor, Baruch approached Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of Eldridge Cleaver (the Minister of Information for the Black Panthers) about photographing the Panthers. Baruch and Jones received permission to photograph the group, which they did over a period of months during the summer of 1968. The result was a controversial but well-attended exhibition at the de Young, followed by their book “The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers” (1970). The exhibition traveled to the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York City, Dartmouth College and the University of California at Santa Cruz. Jones started photographing a houseboat community docked at Gate 5 on Sausalito’s waterfront in 1969, resulting in an essay on the free-spirited community. Jones returned to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1970; he remained on the faculty until 1997. His later projects largely focused on landscape photography, with “The Rock Series” and “The Salt Marsh Series” done in 1978-79 and “The Mount Tamalpais Series” in 1980. Before his wife Baruch died in 1997, they established an endowment to support their archives housed at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Honors accorded Jones included the Edward Steichen Certificate of Recognition from the National Urban League (1961), a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1977), the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Award of Honor (1983) and an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute (2004). In 2001 the Santa Barbara Museum of Art mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work, “Pirkle Jones: Sixty Years in Photography.” A documentary film on his life by filmmaker Jane Levy Reed, “Pirkle Jones: Seven Decades Photographed,” appeared in 2009, the year Jones died. (TNB 2/2017) Selected bibliography: Jones, Pirkle and Tim B. Wride. Pirkle Jones: California Photographs. New York: Aperture, 2001.