Published: February 5, 2002
SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. – For almost 60 years photographer Pirkle Jones has chronicled the people, politics and landscapes of Northern California – a “promised land” that has long held sway in the American cultural imagination. Jones has turned his artist’s eye on a universe of beauty and meaning, photographing everything from flea-market finds to some of the most important American social movements in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Published in conjunction with the first retrospective of the artist’s work on view through March 31, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Pirkle Jones: California Photographs (Aperture, December 2001) showcases more than 80 of his photographs and spans more than 60 years. A biographical essay by curator Tim B. Wride frames the artist and his work within the context of photographic history, the people with whom he collaborated and the great scope of California life.
Jones’ career, which began with the purchase of a Kodak Brownie when he was 17 years old, commenced in the 1930s when his photographs were both published and exhibited internationally in Pictorialist salons and publications. 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 lifelong friendship.
Over the course of his career, Jones has produced an astounding body of work. His images are in the finest private and institutional photography collections in the country. His friends and colleagues number among the most renowned figures in photography. And yet, whether in spite of these affiliations or because of them, he has battled anonymity in the broad sweep of photographic history.
As the first major publication on the artist, Pirkle Jones: California Photographs is crucial contribution to the art field, and offers the unique chance to enjoy one of the greatest photographers of the Twentieth Century. His genius shines through his uncanny prescience, a sense of urgency, and a sympathetic eye where he is at once the artist and witness, combining portraiture, landscapes and architectural photographs to create thorough documents of social structure and upheaval.
Among the photo-essays included in Pirkle Jones: California Photographs are the compassionate and controversial piece on the Black Panther Party in the San Francisco Bay Area and Jones’ portraits of the Sausalito houseboat community known as Gate 5, and the extraordinary 1956 photo essay done in collaboration with Dorothea Lange photographing the destruction and dislocation of the Berryessa Valley before it was flooded upon completion of the Monticello Dam. Published as a single issue of Aperture magazine in 1960 under the name “Death of a Valley,” this essay remains a powerful testament to the price of progress.
Pirkle Jones: California Photographs also features the artist’s work from the last few decades. Ever drawn to his own backyard, Jones’ mature eye has captured candid street scenes and workers at their jobs, the great city of San Francisco and the grand northern coast of California. Over the last 20 years, Jones has returned to the challenge of nature, to create order in the mysterious and chaotic natural world that he has inhabited for so long. In his extended series of captivating, contemplative landscapes such as the Rock, Salt Marsh and Mountain Tamalpais series, Jones sought to achieve an expression of his subconscious and spirit, and in turn, his photographs elicit from nature an approximation of the inner man.
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