Pirkle Jones was born in Shreveport, LA, into a large family. His unusual name came from the physician, Dr. Pirkle, who delivered him. Jones began his photographic career at the age of seventeen with the purchase of a Kodak Brownie camera and soon, his photographs were being published and exhibited internationally in Pictorialist salons and publications.
Jones served in WWII, shipping out from San Francisco to the Pacific Theater. He fell in love with San Francisco and vowed to return after the war. In 1946, after his service in WWII, Jones did return and he entered the first photography class at the CSFA on the G.I. Bill. There he met the community of artists and instructors that would shape and define his career. Jones worked as Adams’ assistant from 1947 to 1953, and the two forged a life-long friendship.
Jones often collaborated with his wife, writer-photographer Ruth-Marion Baruch, over the course of their 49-year marriage. Their wedding was held in the Yosemite Valley home of Ansel and Virginia Adams in 1949.
In 1956, Dorothea Lange approached him to collaborate on a photographic essay, Death of a Valley. The two chronicled the demise of the Berryessa Valley, which disappeared when the Monticello Dam was completed. Jones later described the project as “one of the most meaningful photographic experiences of my professional life.”
Another important photographic collaboration in the early 1960s with Ansel Adams, The Story of a Winery, illustrated the growth of a new industry and also told the story of winemaking. The images ultimately became a publication and an exhibition that the Smithsonian Institution toured.
In 1961, Jones and Baruch were drawn to a small, forgotten town on the banks of the Sacramento River and a former gateway to the Gold Country. Their Walnut Grove: Portrait of a Town was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
A landmark documentary series began in 1968 when Baruch was introduced to Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Black Panther party leader Eldridge Cleaver. An exhibition in 1968 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum drew over 100,000. Together, Jones and Baruch produced The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers, with text by Baruch, and published by Beacon Press in 1970. Another book, Black Panthers 1968, was later published in 2002.
Jones’ mature eye captured a broad spectrum of subjects in 20th Century California. An exhibition in 2001 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Pirkle Jones: Sixty Years in Photography, chronicled his views.
Pirkle Jones’s many achievements include the Photographic Excellence Award from the National Urban League, the National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellowship and an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute. Jones taught photography at San Francisco Art Institute for 28 years, and retired in 1997. The University of California, Santa Cruz, holds the archives of Jones’ and Baruch’s work. Jones resided in a rustic home he built amongst the trees on the shoulder of Mt. Tamalpais above Mill Valley, California until his death in 2009.