Husband-and-wife photographers Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch had a ringside seat to much of California’s mid 20th century. They took tens of thousands of pictures of migrant workers, environmentally threatened communities and perhaps most famously, the Black Panthers during their hey day in Oakland.
The vast majority of their work -- more than 12,000 prints and 25,000 negatives -- now call UC Santa Cruz home. It's the largest single gift in the campus’s history, with an estimated value of $32 million.
"They were people who were very interested in documenting social, and political and environmental issues," says Elisabeth Remak-Honnef, who heads of Special Collections and Archives at UC Santa Cruz.
Remak-Honnef figures it’ll take at least two years to catalog everything, including a selection of works by big names Jones and Baruch studied and worked with: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Weston. But some of the Black Panther photographs have already been sent to the Oakland Museum for this weekend’s opening of All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50.
Drawn to California
Baruch was born in Berlin, and immigrated to New York City in 1927. She got an undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri but came west to attend the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where she studied with the likes of Ansel Adams, Minor White, Homer Page, and Edward Weston
Jones, originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, joined the first class taught by Ansel Adams in 1946. He became Adams' assistant in 1949 and taught at the school for 28 years, beginning in 1952.
Jones and Adams became friends, as well as colleagues, and met Baruch through Adams.
Jones and Adams co-taught a summer session at UC Santa Cruz called "Words and Images" in 1969. Though Jones settled in Mill Valley with Baruch, he never forgot UCSC. "He thought [Santa Cruz] was a very beautiful place," says Remak-Honnef. "He liked the quirkiness of the campus. He liked the political activism on the campus."
The archive will be housed in McHenry Library’s Special Collections, already home to a smaller collection the couple gave to UC Santa Cruz in 2003. "I really feel this collection has come home to where it belonged and where it was intended to end up," Remak-Honnef added.
Black Panther Days
The Panther series of photographs came about in 1968 when Baruch was introduced to Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Black Panther party leader Eldridge Cleaver. Given unprecedented access to the inner circle of the Black Panthers, Jones and Baruch took photographs from July through October of that year.
The photos caused an uproar at the time. San Francisco's de Young Museum, which was mounting a show, was tempted to cancel the exhibition, but went ahead. The show drew 100,000 visitors.
In 2004, Jones told the Los Angeles Times, "I had professional clients who said, 'What in the world are you doing photographing Panthers?' I'd just sort of shrug my shoulders. I did the talking through the photographs.'"
Remak-Honnef says UC Santa Cruz also plans to loan items to the de Young Museum in San Francisco for their upcoming Summer of Love exhibition.
"I find that the photos that Ruth-Marion Baruch's photographs of people are absolutely extraordinary," Remak Honnef said. "She had a way of capturing human beings that I think was just superb."
That said, not all the photos are of people. Both photographers had a keen interested in Bay Area landscapes, cityscapes, and environmental politics.
Jones collaborated with Lange on "The Death of a Valley 1956," which portrayed the Berryessa Valley in Napa County during the year before completion of the Monticello Dam that flooded the valley. (See photo above.)
“The stories Pirkle and Ruth-Marion captured from the 1940s through the 1970s are just as relevant today as when they were created," Remak Honnef muses. "50 years later, we're still addressing the very same questions."