By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: March 23, 2009
Pirkle Jones, whose images of migrant farm workers, threatened
California towns and valleys and the Black Panthers at the peak of
their power made him one of the most admired photographers of his
generation, died on March 15 in San Rafael, Calif. He was 95 and
lived in Mill Valley, Calif.
The death was confirmed by Jennifer McFarland, the director of the
Pirkle Jones Foundation.
Mr. Jones, a disciple of Ansel Adams, brought a sensitivity to visual
texture and a sense of historic urgency to subjects as varied as the
California landscape, the San Francisco skyline and a countercultural
houseboat community in Sausalito. Perhaps his most remarkable
photographs, taken in the tumultuous year 1968, captured the leaders
of the Black Panther Party as they would have liked to be seen: bold
revolutionaries poised to overturn the white power structure.
"He was a man of huge social conscience, and he brought that to the
work," said Karen Sinsheimer, the curator of photography at the Santa
Barbara Museum of Art, which gave Mr. Jones his first retrospective
exhibition in 2001. "But he also made absolutely beautiful prints,
just perfect, with crisp detail and a vast tonal range in black and white."
Adams, his mentor, who died in 1984, once paid him a high compliment.
"His photography is not flamboyant, does not depend upon the
superficial excitements," Adams said. "His pictures will live with
you, and with the world, as long as there are people to observe and
Mr. Jones was born in Shreveport, La., and bought his first camera, a
Kodak Brownie, when he was 17. He began exhibiting his work at camera
clubs in the 1930s.
In 1941, when he was employed at a shoe factory in Lima, Ohio, he
enlisted in the Army and served in the Pacific theater. He passed
through San Francisco on the way out and returned after the war to
enroll in the new photography department at the California School of
Fine Arts, headed by Adams.
From 1947 to 1953 he worked as an assistant and printmaker to Adams,
who brought him into an artistic circle that included Edward Weston,
Dorothea Lange and Minor White. He also met and married Ruth-Marion
Baruch, a fellow photography student and poet, who became a lifelong
collaborator. She died in 1997.
In 1956 Ms. Lange asked Mr. Jones to help her document the Berryessa
Valley, soon to disappear underwater with the completion of the
Monticello Dam. Their photo essay, "The Death of a Valley," recorded
the last year of life in the valley's towns and farms and, published
as a single issue of Aperture in 1960, became a classic of
photojournalism. Mr. Jones later called the collaboration "one of the
most meaningful photographic experiences of my professional life."
He went on to collaborate with Adams on a photo essay on the building
of the Paul Masson Mountain Winery. In 1961 he and his wife spent
time in Walnut Grove, Calif., to create the portrait of a dying town.
"I've always thought of my career as a bridge between the classic
photography of Ansel Adams and the documentary work of Dorothea
Lange," he told Art & Antiques last year.
In 1968 Ms. Baruch became a friend of Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of
the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, through their work with
the Peace and Freedom Party. From July to October 1968, Mr. Jones and
Ms. Baruch photographed Black Panthers in the Bay Area with the
stated goal of promoting a better understanding of the party.
The moment was fraught. Huey P. Newton, the party's minister of
defense, was on trial on a charge of murder in the death of a police
officer, and relations between the Panthers and the police threatened
to become open warfare. (Newton was convicted of manslaughter.) Mr.
Jones's photographs of three Panthers standing on courthouse steps
holding a "Free Huey" banner and of male and female Panthers posing
with guns became emblematic images of the era.
An exhibition of the Panther photographs at the De Young Museum in
San Francisco drew more than 100,000 visitors. The photographs were
published in book form as "Black Panthers," with an introduction by
Mr. Jones turned to more peaceful subject matter. For years,
beginning in the early 1970s, he photographed the drop-outs of Gate
5, an alternative houseboat community in Sausalito that he nearly
joined. In the final decades of his life, he concentrated on the
landscape around his glass-and-redwood house in Mill Valley.
It was not because of failure of nerve. Only once, he told Art &
Antiques, had he ever stepped back from taking a picture.
"In the '70s, I saw a fortuneteller at a flea market," he recalled.
"She said that she'd put a curse on me for the rest of my life if I
took her picture. So I didn't."