From December 20, 2003, through April 18, 2004, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present Pirkle Jones and the Changing California Landscape. The exhibition’s point of departure is a series of 30 photographs called Death of a Valley, taken in 1956 by Jones and his longtime friend and colleague Dorothea Lange, documenting the final year of a farming town that is now submerged under the Lake Berryessa reservoir in northern California’s Napa County. Also featured will be an additional 30 northern California landscape photos taken by Jones both before and after the Valley project: in San Francisco, Point Lobos (near Monterey), and Walnut Grove, a small agricultural community on the Sacramento River.
The exhibition is organized by Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA. “Pirkle Jones has lived through the great changes of recent California history,” says Phillips. “When he worked with Dorothea Lange, he looked at the changes to the state’s landscape and inhabitants made in the name of development.”
Jones’s work comes within a tradition of landscape photography, originated by Ansel Adams, of idealizing the untouched land, blessed by a transcendent divinity, but also the very practical and human effects of changes in land use as they impact individuals and their customary way of life. Jones’s work set a precedent for more recent photographers who study the ways in which development and its attitude or approach to land have changed the very nature of landscape in California.
Sixty additional photos from the Museum’s permanent collection will contextualize Jones’s work through other photographers’ depictions of northern and southern California landscapes. These images will include photographs by Jones’s early contemporaries, including Dorothea Lange, William Heick and William Garnett, and pictures taken in the 1970s and 1980s by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, William Thacher Dane, Henry Wessel and others when inhabited landscape was rediscovered as an important subject. Several members of this latter group were included in the influential 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of the Man-altered Landscape at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York.
In 1956 Jones and Lange began their photographic examination of the farming communities in the Berryessa Valley, which was about to be flooded as part of a reservoir project. The project would benefit California’s growing commercial farms and expanding cities but force the valley’s residents to vacate the area. Jones and Lange were on retainer from Life magazine, although the pictures were never published there; the public saw them for the first time in 1960 at the Oakland Museum, and then later that year at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA). The series received popular and critical acclaim, and it figures among the highlights of Jones’s career. All the essential qualities of his individual photographic vision are there, in particular his intensely personal way of seeing the world. The pictures look with a vivid sense of nostalgia and empathy at a small-town, small-farm way of life that is in the midst of being phased out. Images like Severed Power Lines, Bulldozer, and Last Memorial Day are stark portraits of a community actively engaged in the process of shutting down. Other pictures, like Grape Picker and Buck Hannackle (a cowboy on his horse), depict a few local residents continuing with life as usual, illustrating what Jones and Lange called “the price of progress.”
Jones and Lange started the project without any preconceptions about its outcome on film. They simply began to frequent the area, sometimes working together, other times independently. Occasionally they would shoot the same area or theme, but come away with very different images. Given their strong and occasionally diverging perspectives, it was often necessary for them to negotiate issues of working and critical methodology in order to give the final series a coherent narrative and a consistent visual and emotional tone. The experience, Jones found, was invaluable for his subsequent collaborations with other photographers.
“The Berryessa project was one of the most meaningful photographic experiences of my professional life,” commented Jones in 1994. “My response to the people and the events that unfolded as I photographed in the valley were influenced both by my background of living on a farm when I was a youngster and the sense of urgency that Dorothea and I felt as we worked. . . . The people in the valley were being dislocated, their homes destroyed or moved, and the way of life as they had experienced it for a generation was coming to an end. We knew that we were seeing and recording for the last time—the orchards in bloom, the beautiful home with its mature, leafy walnut trees, the McKenzie Store, the harvesting of the pears, grapes and grain. . . .”
Now 89 years old and a resident of Marin County, near San Francisco, Pirkle Jones has been taking pictures since he was 17. In 1946, on the GI Bill, he enrolled in the inaugural year of the photography program at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Ansel Adams founded the program and taught many classes during those first years; the other instructors included Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, and Minor White. Jones worked as Adams’s assistant from 1947 until 1953, and he married photographer Ruth-Marion Baruch at Adams’s Yosemite home in 1949. Also in that year, Jones photographed the farmers’ markets in San Francisco as part of a larger body of work documenting the Bay Area.
In 1961 he photographed Walnut Grove, a small town on the banks of the Sacramento River. The town’s fertile soil and location between Sacramento and San Francisco made it a bustling gateway to the gold country and a hub for shipping agricultural products to market. Walnut Grove was a haven for Asian immigrant agricultural workers who featured prominently in Jones’s photographs. The automobile and the introduction of the interstate highway system, which bypassed Walnut Grove, had largely emptied it of people and all but shut it down. Jones and Baruch also collaborated on several projects over the course of their 49-year marriage, including one in which they documented the Bay Area’s Black Panther party from July through October of 1968.