Pirkle Jones


1914, Shreveport, Louisiana
2009, San Rafael, Bay Area


Pirkle Jones lived in California from the mid-1940s on, photographing the state and its inhabitants with understanding and sympathy. In 1946, when Ansel Adams started the first-ever department of photography in an art school (at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute), Jones was one of the first students, and he returned later to teach classes of his own. Jones grew up in the rural Midwest on a family farm, and when he moved to California his great interests at first were the qualities of San Francisco itself: its moody fog, brilliant sun, tiny houses, and steep perspectives.

California experienced great changes in the postwar period, and Jones was riveted by the transformation. In 1956 Dorothea Lange invited Jones to join her in documenting the last year of the Berryessa Valley, in Napa and Solano counties, before it and the nearby town of Monticello were flooded to accommodate a new reservoir, the present Lake Berryessa. The project was commissioned by Life magazine but remained unpublished until 1960, when Aperture magazine reproduced the photographs in a special issue. That same year the series, titled Death of a Valley, was also shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA).

In 1968 Jones and his wife, the photographer Ruth-Marion Baruch, undertook a photographic study of the Black Panther Party. Intended to foster understanding of the group, the photographs drew large crowds when exhibited at San Francisco's de Young Museum and became emblematic of the era.

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