Bathed in Light

A 75th-birthday exhibition pays tribute to Harold Jones’ long career in photography

Back in the golden age of radio, when Harold Jones was a young man, he was working in his darkroom when a radio-cast of Waiting for Godot came on the air.

As Jones slid his negatives into the old-fashioned chemistry bath of the darkroom, working into the night, he listened to the play. He heard Samuel Beckett's two characters speaking as they waited, fruitlessly, for Godot, a mysterious being who might—or might not—change their lives.

The story, in which everything was uncertain and some things were absurd, played on as Jones watched his shadowy images magically coalesce on the photographic paper. That experience, Jones says, was profound, shaping his aesthetic and his whole career in photography.

Now 75, Jones has long made enigmatic, sometimes playful works whose meaning is not quite clear.

In "Star," a photo from 1981, a little girl with a broken arm walks down a street in Tucson in a blinding light. Jones renders the vague figure every more dreamlike by scratching the surface with sandpaper. The child, his daughter Star, seems to be walking at once through a flurry of snow and burning sunlight.

"Star" is part of a new Jones exhibition at the Sea of Glass Cosmos gallery marking Jones's three-quarter-century birthday. The front room of the gallery is devoted to vintage, much- admired works like "Star," and the often-reprinted 1979 "Self-Portrait with Water." A black-and-white portrait of the artist as a young man, it shows him grappling with the heat of his new home in Tucson, where he had moved to become founding director of the Center for Creative Photography. (After his stint at the center, he went on to found the photography program at the UA. He taught there for 30 years.)

But, happily, the exhibition also showcases 10 of Jones' works made in the last two years. Jones has always been innovative with his techniques—witness 1994's "Picnic Among Saguaros," half-painted out with gold acrylic, as well as the sandpaper surface of "Star." And he hasn't hesitated to embrace contemporary technology: All the new works are color digital photos printed out in archival inkjet.

Gathered as a collection called "Ode to Godot," the new pieces, from 2012 to 2015, are as infused as the vintage photos with mystery, shot through with striking geometry, and bathed in light and shadow.

"Willow's Planets," from 2013, transforms an ordinary patio table into a solar system. The round white tabletop gleams in the desert light; a pet dog's colorful balls in red and green are carefully arranged across the surface, like orbs traveling across the universe. But the earthbound patio chairs, seen as shadows on the concrete, remind us of how wedded we are to our own planet. The Godot-like joke is that we haven't left the backyard, and probably never will.

"Willow and Frances Sleeping" is a picture of the planetary pooch on a bed with Frances Murray, Jones' wife and an acclaimed photographer in her own right. This could have been a sentimental domestic snapshot. But Frances is visible only as a mummy-like form completely wrapped in a sky-blue blanket; the ends of the blanket are tossed at a diagonal across the white bed sheets. And the dog is likewise carefully placed horizontally to jack up the geometric jolt of the scene.

Likewise, the sweetness of "The Astronomer," a photo of a toddler peering through a telescope, is partially diluted by its disciplined geometry. The floor and window shoot across the room in a sharp diagonal; the scope slants at the opposite angle. The child becomes a small figure inside a giant Z.

Some of the new works are almost completely abstracted. The lovely "Blue Line" is a minimalist view of the dividing line between sky and sea; the horizon is a simple stretch of muted green and the expansive sea and sky are pale gray.

Still, one of my favorites in the show is a vintage piece, "Chair/Studio," a black and white from 1976. It poignantly evokes the life of an artist. Shot from inside the dim darkroom with a view through a doorway into the bright studio, it's beautifully composed.

Tools of the trade hang on the door frame, including Jones' notes to himself and a letter from an artist friend, the eminent photog Robert Heinecken. On the other side of the doorway are the fruits of the artist's darkroom labors: works in progress and finished prints hanging on the way. And a desk chair, where the artist thinks and reworks, is bathed in a ray of light pouring through a window.

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