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Pirkle Jones has been photographing his own back yard -- writ large -- for 60 years

Wednesday, Dec 31 2003
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Plenty of people think you've got to be "objective" or at least "detached" to be able to see things clearly. Anthropologists are famous for promoting this notion. But some folks say that we know our own back yards better than any stranger -- no matter how educated -- ever could, and therefore we nonexperts are pretty well qualified to study our own culture, locality, and gender. Self-proclaimed traditionalists in the field of anthropology consider this "cultural studies" idea to be newfangled hoity-toity postmodern crapola.

Pirkle Jones has been photographing his own back yard -- writ large -- for 60 years, and although he did get a lot of education, his hallmark is a personal connection to his subjects; no hoity-toity postmodern crapola here. His interests lie chiefly with land use and the relationships between people and the places where they live, and he's stuck fairly close to Northern California. Jones has resided in Marin County for decades, and his recent work focuses on the woodlands and hilltops that make that area so beautiful. It would also be tough to call Jones newfangled: He was Ansel Adams' assistant from 1947 to 1953.

Jones is perhaps best known for a collaboration from 1956 to 1960 with Dorothea Lange on a photo essay about Berryessa, a town that was to be flooded by the Monticello Dam. The farming community pulled up its roots (sometimes literally: The cemetery was relocated) and moved, under the sensitive lenses of Lange and Jones. The subsequent exhibition was a huge success, lauded for its subtle, complex understanding of the price of progress. The 90-year-old Jones is also acclaimed for work he did with his late wife, Ruth-Marion Baruch, on subjects as various and close-at-hand as the hippie community at Sausalito's Gate 5, the Black Panther Party, and the Sacramento River town of Walnut Grove. Pirkle Jones may not give a hoot about cultural studies, but he's proof that it's a worthwhile theory.

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Hiya Swanhuyser

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