There is no music playing at the R. Blitzer Gallery in Santa Cruz. But in the spacious quiet of the gallery, you can practically hear the song anyway.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” is one of several of Bob Dylan songs more readily recognized by a signature line than its title. He dishes it out like a snake showing its fangs: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”
From Dylan’s standpoint, “Mr. Jones” may be some kind of bewildered everyman. But at the Blitzer, he’s an actual guy—Santa Cruz photographer R.R. “Ron” Jones.
This Mr. Jones is the subject of a career retrospective show at the Blitzer in the Wrigley Building on Santa Cruz’s Westside called Ballad of a Photographer: 40 Years of Photographs. And, just in case you don’t catch the reference, the gallery features posters on which is printed the maddeningly enigmatic lyrics to Dylan’s ballad.
“I changed one word,” Jones says as he stands in the gallery, surrounded by about a hundred of his prints. With that, he points to the very first line of the song: “You walk into a room with a pencil in your hand.” He changed “pencil” to “camera.”
The following line, a reference to a naked man in surreal surroundings, parallels an image of Jones himself, naked from the waist up, with one of Thailand’s most prominent drag queens. From that first moment, it’s clear that deep-diving into Jones’ work is not so different than listening to Dylan’s song—we’re all in for a hallucinatory passage into unfamiliar worlds.
Jones, 68, is originally from Houston, Texas, but has been a fixture on the Santa Cruz arts scene for almost 35 years. Locals may know many of his performance shots from the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. But the heart of Jones’s work—the thing that gives his photographs a uniquely haunting, hypnotic quality—lies far from Santa Cruz.
As an artist, Jones has a taste for traveling to the places where the cruise ships don’t go, and no one is taking selfies. He and his camera have traveled widely, but clearly he has places that draw him: Mexico, Java, Southeast Asia.
The new show doesn’t shy from the barbarity of state violence, juxtaposing a shot of fresh graves in Chiapas during the Zapatista rebellion in the mid-1990s with a tight close-up of skulls unearthed in the “killing fields” of Cambodia. “Those are all women between the ages of 40 and 50,” he says, gesturing to the latter.
However compelling the images, touring the work with Jones clues you in that the photos are merely portals to larger experiences in terrain that the vast majority of Americans will never explore.
In one tight close-up, a man looks somberly and wall-eyed into the camera. “Zimbabwe,” says Jones. He traveled there in the early 2000s, smack in the middle of the reign of dictator Robert Mugabe. He was there to document the AIDS crisis in Africa, sponsored by a group of American physicians running an AIDS research project.
“Idiot me, I thought, ‘Oh, this will be cool,’” says Jones. “It was fucking heartbreaking. Everyone’s dying. Everybody’s got AIDS. And right next door was the insane asylum. You can’t go out into the street because Robert Mugabe is going to arrest you. It was a nightmare.”
As Jones tells the story, it’s something of a miracle that he got to shoot inside Zimbabwe at all. On the flight to Harare, he struck up a conversation with a man from the African nation, who asked Jones why he was traveling.
“I’m going to photograph an AIDS research project,” said Jones.
The man laughed. “No, you’re not,” he said. “They’re going to take your camera away the minute you get to the airport.”
When the plane landed, Jones stuck closely to his new friend. He watched as a German film crew was waiting at a luggage turnstile for their camera equipment. When it emerged, it was picked up by airport workers and carried away, to angry protest from the waiting Germans.
The Zimbabwean man had told Jones to tell authorities that he was a schoolteacher, and not to take his bag to customs. “Right before we get to customs,” Jones remembers, “he points to a door in the very far corner that says ‘Airport.’ We open it and suddenly we’re in the parking lot. I didn’t walk 10 feet before I met the doctor who was there to greet me. She goes, ‘I knew you would make it.’”
Once at the AIDS hospital, Jones walked past hundreds of people lining both walls of a broad corridor, all waiting to see his host, the only doctor on duty.
“Margaret, are all these people waiting for you?” the photographer asked.
“Yes,” said the doctor. “I’ll see half of them today. The other half will spend the night here, and I’ll see them tomorrow.”
Zimbabwe represents only two of the images in the show, but many carry similarly engrossing stories. There’s one of the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street in Jones’s hometown of Houston, dating back to 1983. There’s the oldest photo in the set, a sand dune shot that evokes Edward Weston. There’s a portrait of Weston’s former wife and most famous model, the late Charis Wilson who lived in Santa Cruz for most of her later years. Jones knew her well. “She didn’t take shit from anyone,” he says with a laugh. “She’d say, ‘I don’t like these pictures, Ron. You’re not very good.’”
Jones shows a fondness for artists, and his show is chock full of portraiture of great artists, writers and musicians from poet Pablo Fernandez to banjo master Bela Fleck to composer Lou Harrison to painter Julian Schnabel to saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who grew up in Santa Cruz. “I remember when the saxophone was bigger than he was,” says Jones.
He’s also inexorably drawn to religious themes, from the portrait of the shy monk he took at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat to the tattoo of Buddha’s foot on the top of another man’s bald head. He photographed a local bodybuilder holding a head of Buddha from the seventh century, and two young women called the Sin Sisters forming a trio with a 17th-century statue of Jesus.
The photographer is resolutely old school in the film-vs.-digital debate. “It’s better,” he protests, about shooting film. “It just looks good. You go into this,” he says, making a diving gesture with his hand at one of his silver-gelatin prints. “You don’t go into that,” pointing over his shoulder at the one room in his exhibit that features digital prints.
Even so, the digital prints may prove to be one of the most popular draws of the exhibit. They are shots of performers on stage at Kuumbwa, dramatically lost in vividly colored motion blurs. Another themed room in the exhibit features a series of images with models and unusual animal skulls and bones, a tribute to late San Francisco biologist and bone collector Ray Bandar.
Skulls, religious icons, nudes, performers, elbow-to-elbow in compelling contexts. They are all aswirl in an aesthetic that has been 40 years in the making. The totality of Jones’ vision brings us right back to the song, as if the images that crowd the Blitzer each can find their counterpart in Dylan’s lyrics.
Something is happening here, and even if Mr. Jones does not know what it is, he’s still working at figuring it out.
“I got a few more years left in me,” he says. “What I’d like to do is really get in the darkroom and lock the door for a month. I got things I’ve never even printed. I could put together another five books.”
Ballad of a Photographer: 40 Years of Photographs by R.R. Jones
Blitzer Gallery, 2801 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Through July 28. Gallery hours Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.