Prizefighter handsome, Ron Jones has been making pictures most of his life.
A classic California dreamer, he’s taken his camera all over the world—through the adventure years of the ’70s and ’80s, and the belt-tightening ’90s, up to present-day. With his edgy mix of skill and luck, Jones’ career has managed to weather divorce, recessions, client vagaries and the digital revolution. Through 30 years in Santa Cruz, Jones has amassed a long list of clients from academia, the corporate realm and the arts. Their satisfaction has been won by his exceptional eye, and his ability to wait, relax, and engage with his subjects. For all his physical intensity, this photographer is a man with a great, sensitive heart.
“Yeah, and I know I’m a dinosaur,” he says with a chuckle. He’s an avowed devotée of the old-school Ansel Adams template, where the darkroom was the magic chamber and the photographic process was all finesse, no Photoshop. “The transition to digital was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he admits with exasperation. “I loved the alchemy that happens in the dark room. Now I spend more time on the computer than I do actually taking pictures.”
Surrounded by riveting faces—his black and white images taken in Java, Mexico, Bali, Thailand, and Laos—Jones laments that he’s stopped travelling as much since “UC lost its money in 2007.” The university was his main client, he explains, and commercial work supported his international documentary work. Until it didn’t.
“I thought I was going to be Irving Penn or Diane Arbus,” he says, flashing a broad grin. And indeed, his work is part of collections from SFMOMA to Stanford to a current exhibit at UC Santa Barbara.
A native of Houston, Jones left Texas at the age of 19.
“My parents kicked me out when I didn’t accept a full scholarship for college football,” he says. Surfing beckoned, and after spending summers in California and Mexico, Jones moved to San Diego, where a photo class at Palomar Junior College changed his life. Flash forward through divorce, a girl from Santa Cruz and becoming a father. He hung out in Carmel, became friends with the Westons and met photographer Paul Schraub, with whom he worked for many years and still shares a studio in downtown Santa Cruz.
Jones is the official photographer for Kuumbwa, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and a long list of steady clients.
Faces are the heart of Jones’ work. “You get real close to the people,” he says, moving a few inches from my face. “I look for the accidental. Some of the best photos I’ve ever gotten were when things went wrong.”
Like when the subject failed to show up, when he was too slow preparing his camera, when he had to improvise. “So you just travel on,” he says. “Get in the car and go get the picture you never planned.”