My friend Pirkle Jones (far right in blue sweater) with Mary & Tim from California Orchids.
I have worked for Pirkle for almost three years & we had become very good friends. He died on March 15. The following is an excerpt from his obituary.
PIRKLE JONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE
Noted photographer and educator Pirkle Jones died on Sunday, March 15 in San Rafael, California at the age of 95. The passing of photographer Pirkle Jones marks the end of an era. He was one of the few remaining artists who studied with Ansel Adams and became known for his exquisite black-and-white prints whose subject matter ranged from the beauty of the California landscape to the politics of the Black Panthers.
Pirkle’s photographs defined the Bay Area. San Francisco skylines with the fog rolling in and cloudscapes appear. Pirkle honored the working man: grape pickers, migrant farm workers, and cattle herders.
He was attracted to the abstract compositional elements he saw in construction where he photographed workers dancing with concrete and I-beams.
Pirkle’s love affair with the San Francisco Bay Area began when he came through San Francisco on his way to the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he returned to San Francisco to enroll in the new photography department at California School of Fine Arts headed by Ansel Adams. This brought him into the circle of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange and Minor White. The creative energy of the time was electric. Pirkle met Ruth-Marion Baruch who was also a student in the photography program and a poet. They were married in 1949 at the Yosemite Valley home of Ansel and his wife Virginia. Adams said “I think that Pirkle Jones is an artist in the best sense of the term. His statement is sound and resonant of the external world as well as of the internal responses and evaluations of his personality. His photography is not flamboyant, does not depend upon the superficial excitements. His pictures will live with you, and with the world, as long as there are people to observe and appreciate.”
Pirkle’s enthusiasm for art and life led him from his tenure as a student and assistant to that of a collaborator and teacher. Pirkle was a renaissance man---a master of his own ideas as well as having the gift to inspire and nurture the creativity of others.
“I am not concerned about style for style’s sake.
Style is as natural as breathing.
If you are true to yourself, you’ll be original.”
Jones’ life encompassed almost a century and his time in photography represented 70 years of work. Pirkle’s legacy was his ability to bring together and express the diverse elements of the world as he saw it, and to communicate his excitement and love of creativity through collaboration and inspiration. He was a great pollinator—buzzing with ideas, touching many people and spreading his infectious enthusiasm. Pirkle was “percolating” all the time. Pirkle Jones chronicled the people, politics and landscapes of Northern California. Photography historian, Nancy Newhall has written that “There are a handful of photographers who have achieved the stature of poets, and Pirkle Jones is one of them.”
Some of Pirkle’s outstanding contributions include:
The “Death of a Valley 1956” a collaboration with Dorothea Lange, which documented the final year of the Berryessa Valley slated to be flooded upon the completion of the Monticello Dam. Published in 1960 as a single issue of Aperture magazine under the name Death of a Valley, this essay remains a powerful testament to the price of progress.
“Walnut Grove 1961”a collaboration with Ruth-Marion Baruch that recorded the portrait of a dying California town.
“A photograph is not real.
The moment we make a picture we become political”
“Black Panthers 1968” a collaboration with Ruth-Marion Baruch that characterized the changing political and social upheaval sweeping across the country from the Bay Area in the Summer of 1968.. Pirkle and Ruth-Marion connected with the Black Panthers through their involvement with the Peace and Freedom Party. Their Panther photographs become the iconic face of the Panthers and carry both a significant beauty and compassion. In 2001, Greybull Press published Black Panthers, 1968 with an introduction by Kathleen Cleaver.
The “Gate 5” series which documents the counter culture houseboat community of Sausalito, California during the late 60’s to early 70’s.
Pirkle Jones's other achievements include the Photographic Excellence Award from the National Urban League and a National Endowment for the Arts Photography fellowship. His photographs have been exhibited at museums nationwide. Jones retired from teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1997; he led workshops in California, including Yosemite workshops with Ansel Adams. In 2001, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art mounted a retrospective exhibition Pirkle Jones: Sixty Years in Photography. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibited Pirkle Jones and the Changing California Landscape in 2003-2004. In 2004 he received an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute. His most recent exhibition in 2009 was “Looking for Mushrooms: Beat Poets, Hippies, Funk, Minimal Art, San Francisco 1955-68” at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. Jane Levy Reed completed the documentary film “Pirkle Jones, Seven Decades Photographed- From Pictorial California to the Politics of the Black Panther Party” in 2009.
Pirkle lived in Mill Valley, California for over 40 years. He retired from 28 years of teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1997. Upon the passing of Ruth-Marion Baruch in 1997, he established their archive and endowment at Special Collections, University Library, U. C. Santa Cruz. Pirkle leaves behind an extensive network of friends, colleagues, caregivers and former students. .