Heard Museum

Phoenix, AZ



Arizona Highways: Celebrating Native Cultures - The Photography of Jerry Jacka


Few photographers have captured the Southwest - and its Native people - like Jerry Jacka. On Saturday, October 7, 2000, the Heard Museum's newest exhibit - Arizona Highways: Celebrating Native Cultures - The Photography of Jerry Jacka - will open, celebrating Jacka's brilliant work and the Native people and landscapes of Arizona. (left: Daisy Johnson, White Mountain Apache, weaves a basket at her home in eastern Arizona)

The Heard Museum and Arizona Highways magazine have joined to celebrate Jacka's photographic achievements in this exhibit, which also celebrates their 70th and 75th anniversaries, respectively. Arizona Highways, Celebrating Native Cultures will share with Heard Museum visitors the special pictures that Jacka has captured throughout his travels in Arizona and the Southwest. Jacka's photography has had a profound impact on the public understanding of Native American art, making it accessible to millions of Arizona Highways magazine readers over four decades. The exhibit is generously sponsored by Motorola.

"Jerry Jacka personifies what Arizona Highways magazine is all about - celebrating the beauty and diversity of this spectacular state and all of its fascinating and diverse people," remarks Win Holden, publisher of Arizona Highways. "Jerry's sensitivity and insight into Native people and their magnificent artwork are evident in each of his photographs. Arizona Highways magazine is proud to have given so many readers over the past four decades the privilege of looking through Jerry's gifted eyes." (left: White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly National Monumnet, Arizona)

It's evident through Jacka's photos that he loves his work. "The photos aren't about photos, they're about relationships and events," Jacka recalls. "I think about why it was hard to get the shot, or easy or fun. It's hard for me to make a decision (about which photos to include in the exhibit) because each photo is wrapped in relationships. It's a trip back through my career, and I'm reminded about the various things that occurred when I took the picture.

"Sometimes we're accused as photographers of exploiting the Native people, and boy, I just hope I haven't done that. It's always a relationship with them. You start working with their art and before you know it, you're meeting their family and it becomes a relationship and friendship, not a business relationship. Those friendships continue."

Jacka's interest in photography and his passion for Native American cultures began as a youth on his family's desert homestead north of Phoenix. The two came together when he and his young bride with a newborn baby made their first trip to Hopi in 1955. Rather than carpet their first home, Lois and Jerry purchased Navajo rugs for the floors. Their passion for collecting Native American art blossomed over the years. (left: Suzie Yazzie, Navajo, shows her daughter the art of weaving in her hogan in Monument Valley)

One of Jerry Jacka's first jobs was as a forensic photographer with the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office. In 1958, Arizona Highways magazine ran one of his photos - a shot of the Painted Desert taken five years prior on his honeymoon.

Jerry continued to work at a state agency in planning and research, all the while spending every spare minute and all his family vacations traveling on rural roads, snapping pictures and visiting friends in the places he deeply loves. He and Lois joke that their two children grew up thinking that "vacation" meant Dad taking pictures and going to an Indian reservation.

Over the next 16 years, Arizona Highways published several more photographs. Then, in 1974, Arizona Highways devoted almost the entire February issue to Jerry's story about prehistoric pottery, using his photographs on both the front and back covers as well as one the two inside covers. Jacka decided to make photography his career. Lois eagerly joined him, and the dynamic team began photographing and documenting the exciting artwork being created by Native American artists. (left: Monument Valley)

That first pottery project began a long-time partnership between the Jackas and the Heard Museum that continues today. Jerry Jacka says he was "blown away" at how the Heard and other museums opened their doors and collections to him in the early days, and he credits that spirit of cooperation for his success.

"It (the Heard Museum) has come to mean so much to us and our careers," Jacka notes. "We've been really blessed to work with the publication (Arizona Highways) and places like the Heard Museum to get out the message about what artists are doing."

Ann Marshall, the Heard Museum's director of collections, education and interpretation, has high praises for Jacka, whose work has enhanced numerous exhibits at the museum. "Jerry Jacka and [Hopi photographer] Owen Seumptewa, and current staff photographer Craig Smith, have contributed more significantly to the Heard Museum than any other photographers," she remarks. "So often, Jerry's photographs have had a major part in our exhibits' impact."

Another of Jacka's partners in promoting Native American art over the years has been Bruce McGee, who today manages the Heard Museum Shop. He recalls many unusual photo shoots in back rooms, between boxes and off in corners. "No matter the situation, and there were some unusual ones, Jerry always seems to put his best foot forward for artists," McGee says, smiling. "He captures the essence of the piece, not for Jerry Jacka, but for the artist. There are just numerous artists that, if it weren't for Jerry, wouldn't be where they are today. Every great artist has a connection to him, one way or another. Even the old Navajo ladies who don't speak a word of English know who Jerry is."

Jacka's friendships and relationships led to the creation of 15 books, five on which Lois and Jerry collaborated. His photographs also have appeared in National Geographic publications, Reader's Digest Books, Time Life Books and in Smithsonian Institution publications, not to mention more than 1,500 photographs in Arizona Highways. The exhibition at the Heard Museum, they say, is the perfect way to begin another chapter in their lives - retirement.

When asked about his feelings regarding the showing of his work in Arizona Highways: Celebrating Native Cultures, Jerry Jacka was visibly moved. "I'm just really overwhelmingly honored, because I don't see my work as being that important as far as being at the pinnacle of photography. I'm so glad we could do something, earn a living and enjoy doing it, and help other people at the same time."

While Jerry and Lois downplay the significance of their achievements, McGee says that Jacka's work has had a profound impact on Native American art. "Singlehandedly, he's probably done more to help the arts, to help narrow the communication between artists and collectors," McGee points out. "I'd even put that with Lorenzo Hubbell. I don't think anyone's had so profound an effect on art. There are other photographers who are as good, but there are no others who are as great."

All photos by Jerry Jacka. Rev. 8/22/00

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Heard Museum.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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