Treasure in the Trees
From his tranquil perch in Mill Valley, photographer Pirkle Jones keeps his eyes trained on California’s boundless natural beauty.
Jones is an impossible name to forget. There is something about that name, “Pirkle Jones,” that makes your ears prick up. We first heard about the 92-year-old photographer from his former students, cinematographer Lance Acord and art director Dimitri Levas. They said that Jones and his late wife, Ruth-Marion Baruch, hung out with the masters—Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange; that he had succeeded Minor White at the San Francisco Art Institute; and that he had inspired hundreds of students with his zest for life and passion for photography for more than 30 years. But what really excited us was seeing Jones and Baruch’s photographs of the infamous Black Panthers taken in the turbulence of 1968.
We had to meet this man. So, on one of those rare, perfectly-clear-blue-San Francisco days, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and drove into a town that time has forgotten: Mill Valley. There, nestled in a pine forest, surrounded by redwood, oak, manzanita and Douglas fir trees, is the Jones house. If J.R.R. Tolkien had written a mid-century modern version of Lord of the Rings, this is where Frodo might have lived.
It feels like the forest and Jones chose each other by mutual agreement. There is no ego in the creation of this house; it was designed to be silent in its environs—like a Buddhist retreat. This beautiful redwood and glass box is filled with books and orchids and the sound of a nearby waterfall, the air fragrant with pine, and tree sap and the smell of life.
C: What is the story behind your house? Who designed it?
PJ: The architect’s name was Henry Schubart, and he studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. They met when Wright was in San Francisco doing his presentation of the Butterfly Bridge, which, like many of Wright’s projects, was never built. Henry was part of the environmental group of architects in the area.
C: How long have you been living in this house?
PJ: Since 1965. I think the house is like fine wine—as time goes on, it gets better. Now that I’m sticking closer to home, I’m always glad to be here. I had no idea about the amount of people on the superhighway these days. I would say it’s beginning to look like Los Angeles.
C: But you’re still quite removed living in Mill Valley. There seem to be very few chain stores here.
PJ: We have an architectural committee in Mill Valley. I served on it for years. We were able to keep commercial development down. But recently, they’re allowing huge houses on property where they shouldn’t be built. I’m disappointed that we don’t have tighter regulations in regards to nature. You should treat it with great respect, listen to it and be sympathetic.
C: Your house fits so well into the forest, as if it’s part of it.
PJ: Well, the whole exterior and interior is redwood, and we were very fortunate in being able to get it at that time. It’s rather difficult—if not impossible—to get it now. The wood has been marvelous to live with. There’s no finish on the walls, just the natural patina.
C: How did you get into photography?
PJ: Well, I started when I first got out of high school in 1931. I used to make all kinds of trips to museums from Ohio, where I lived. I had no formal training in photography, but I sent my photographs to what they called pictorial salons at the time. Later, in the 1930s, I saw a collection of Alfred Stieglitz’s work in the museum in Cleveland. It was a delight to see, even if I didn’t understand Stieglitz’s work at the time. That was my first exposure to a fine photograph.
C: Is it true that you and your wife Ruth-Marion were both in the vert first photography class at the San Francisco Art Institute?
PJ: Yes, at the time it was called the California School of Fine Arts. Ruth and I met after WWII in the first photography class, taught by Ansel Adams. He founded the photo department there.
C: Is that how you became friends?
PJ: Ruth was living next door to Ansel in the house he was raised in and still owned in San Francisco. When Ruth and I started going together, Ansel felt it was not proper for her to be living in the same house as Minor White, so she had to move out, and I moved in. It sounds crazy, but that’s how it happened.
C: So you and Minor White were roommates? And Ansel Adams was next door?
PJ: Yes, we were able to use Ansel’s darkroom, which was in the basement of the house. In 1949, Ruth decided we should get married, and she wanted a Jewish wedding. We went over to the synagogue and the rabbi would not marry us because I was not Jewish. So, Ansel said, “Forget it. Come on up to Yosemite, I’ll give you the wedding up there.” And so we did.
C: How did you meet Dorothea Lange?
PJ: It’s very strange, I do not remember when I met her. When I met Edward Weston, it was memorable because we looked at one another, didn’t say a word, but there was a connection. And I remember the first time I saw Ansel, appearing in class, his broad smile and his enthusiasm. It was an incredible experience knowing Ansel, Weston and Dorothea at that time. Ansel had just received his first Guggenheim grant and was photographing the national parks, and Weston was just winding down his career because he already had Parkinson’s. Our class used to go to Carmel to look at Weston’s work and photograph out on Point Lobos. We would go to his house and he would show us maybe a hundred pictures from his cupboard.
C: Weren’t you Adams’ assistant?
PJ: Yes, I was for a number of years. But I was just doing the routine work in the darkroom. None of us printed for him. All of Ansel’s signed work is definitely by Ansel. But I did process his negatives. I remember when Dorothea and Ansel worked together on a story in Utah, on the Mormons, for Life magazine. They sent their work in and I saw for the first time how different it was by looking at their negatives. Ansel was the classicist and technician. Dorothea was the documentarian and humanitarian, but they were very good friends.
C: That’s an incredible white pot on your dining table.
PJ: That’s a Korean pot that we inherited from Dorothea and unfortunately, she passed on before we had the house finished. She got it while she was taking pictures in Korea. It was packed in a duffel bag, and we opened it up, put it on the table and it’s been there ever since.
C: You also have Japanese pottery.
PJ: That used to be our passion and we have quite a collection. In the mid-1950s, we found a little shop in San Francisco that worked with the artist Hamada in Japan. They would bring things back for us.
C: There’s something so Japanese about this house.
PJ: Well, I think Henry realized we liked Japanese pottery. We didn’t push that, but it’s bound to rub off on you.
C: It’s interesting that in the home of two photographers there are no photographs displayed anywhere.
PJ: The house was designed to bring the outdoors inside; it was a choice not to display any art.
C: It’s like living in a tree house.
PJ: Well, we are on this wonderful slope, so you’re close to the land in the front, and when you walk back, you’re up in the air.
C: What is your favorite thing about living in this house?
PJ: The serenity, the beautiful view of Mount Tamalpais, the California turkey vultures flying above and the waterfall after the rain.
C: Nature must like having you here. Even with earthquakes in California, there’s not a crack anywhere in this house.
PJ: I keep my fingers crossed. The windows rattle and things dance around, but we’ve had no noticeable damage. There’s so much glass because Ruth and I didn’t want to cover up the outside. You know, in some places you can be thankful for just one tiny tree outside your house, but we were blessed with an entire redwood forest.
By Roman Alonso and Lisa Eisner.
PHOTO: Lisa Eisner