Back in 1979, when Harold Jones' twins were small girls, one of them dropped her bike in the dirt.
It was a typical Tucson day with a blinding sun, and the bars of the bike cast deep shadows in the sand. The wheels glowed in the brilliant light and spun round so fast that the spokes turned into a blur. Jones grabbed his camera and made "Wheel," an elegant composition of a circle and lines, vividly etched in black and white.
Another time, the girls must have been squirting water from a hose into the dry backyard. The long hose curled sinuously across the square concrete pavers, a deep shadow trailing alongside the rubber. The clear water, almost invisible in the light, splashed down to the earth, and a ring of water and mud exploded into the air. Jones captured the action in "Water Experiment." Like "Wheel," it's a near-abstraction of lines and curves.
What's striking about these works is how cool and cerebral they are. Elegant, even austere, the compositions are concerned primarily with form, light and shadow. Their allusions to human life are subtle, implied only by objects that their human owners have left behind.
The little girls—much photographed by Jones' photographer wife, Frances Murray (See "Unstill Life," Oct. 18, 2007)—rarely appear in their father's photos. When one does turn up, as Star does in the eponymous 1981 "Star," her father obscures her small figure. In the picture, she's walking down the street in West University on another blazing day, but Jones has covered the surface of the print with all-over flecks of white, like snow, and scratched up the paper with sandpaper. Star is like a girl in a dream, or a memory, dimly grasped.
"At the heart of my discovery was the eloquence of animated light," Jones writes in a wall text. "Making light dance in the print was a far more interesting challenge to me than whatever the subject matter may have been."
Jones, now approaching 70, is celebrating a lifetime of photography with A Fortunate Life, a retrospective at ArtsEye, the midtown gallery that doubles as a photo lab. Jones has lived in Tucson since 1975, but I can't remember seeing a show of his own work before. He worked both ends of the camera during his career, always doing his own art, but he was better known to the public as a curator, administrator and teacher.
His career certainly lives up to the good fortune of the show's title. Right out of grad school at the University of New Mexico, he landed the plum post of assistant curator at the George Eastman House, the photo mecca in Rochester, N.Y., home of Kodak. From there, he was invited to become director of LIGHT, the first contemporary photography gallery in New York City, and next, the UA recruited him to be the founding director of the Center for Creative Photography. Three years later, he switched to teaching, and he gets credit for founding the university's photography program. He taught until 2005, logging 30 years in the classroom and darkroom.
Throughout his career, he engaged with plenty of people, including such photographic luminaries as Ansel Adams, Frederick Sommer and Garry Winogrand, not to mention several generations of students. It's no surprise to find that his photography is quiet and people-free, an artistic respite far from the madding crowd.
"Downtown Tucson," 1977, is totally unpeopled; in Jones' vision, the central city is a pure geometry of rectangles and lines. A warehouse takes up most of the picture plane, stretching horizontally across the paper, pushing up against the top. There's no sky above, and below, there's only a length of sidewalk. Jones adds surface interest to the rigorous composition by drawing wavy lines in white ink all across the black-and-white silver print. Even more interesting, he managed to position his camera so that he could reproduce the city's skyscrapers, reflected in two windows midway up the warehouse façade. The tiny reflected towers make for an ingenious photo within the photo.
Jones trained as a painter long ago, and as a student, he worked at a portrait studio, where, in the days before Photoshop, he often retouched color images. In quite a few of his works at ArtsEye, he carries on that multimedia mentality, doctoring his black-and-white photos with food coloring, paint and ink.
The amusing "Marching Lawn Chair Drill Team," 1995, is adorned with iridescent acrylic. Thick and shiny, the gold paint covers most of the picture, spilling out over the grass and outlining the young people solemnly marching along with chairs upside down atop their heads. This is one of his few crowd scenes, and Jones turns it surrealistic, deliberately muting its human dimension.
Elsewhere, he colors just one small passage in a photo. "Motorcycle," 1969, is set on an eastern street, in Rochester perhaps, lined with trees and two-story houses. The motorcycle is front and center, two mirrors dangling from its handlebars. Like "Downtown Tucson," this one captures little images on glass: a rooftop and trees on the mirror to the left, and the photographer himself, in miniature, bending over the camera in the mirror on the right. The rest of the picture remains black and white, but Jones highlights the work's optical tricks by delicately hand-coloring the reflections in the mirrors.
Among the 32 works in the show, some of the real tour-de-force works are the classic gelatin silver prints in black and white. "Bedroom," 1976, makes the corner of a room compelling; all angles and lines, the geometry is softened by a human touch: the bathrobe hanging from a hook on the door. "From the Boathouse, Summer Morning," from 1984, is a lovely composition of light and shadows, with the shack's wooden floors and walls providing a series of bracing lines on the diagonal.
"Cigarette, 22nd St.," shot in 1973, is a wonderful film-noir study of a man on a street. But Jones being Jones, the man is represented only by his feet and the bottom of his trousers, the long shadows trailing him suggesting his height. Left behind on the dark grainy sidewalk is a small perfect cylinder, a cigarette in blinding white.
Jones does go so far as to make a portrait of his wife. Shot in 1972, "Frances, New York City" has Murray gazing at her husband, a towel wrapped around her wet hair. But the photographer in him can't resist turning this domestic scene into a formal—and arresting—study of light and dark.
The back of the room is dark, but Murray stands in a pool of light pouring in from the apartment window. The blinds in the apartment window have been partly drawn, and they've filtered the light, casting alternating stripes of sun and shadow across Murray's handsome face.