The joy of research means discovering new things, like a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who seems virtually unknown today. Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, the fictionalized story of the Gullah community on Peterkin’s plantation in South Carolina, won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1929. A Devil and a Good Woman, Too by Susan Millar Williams, is the only biography written about her. Thomas Landess’s book, pictured here, offers some biographical information, but it concentrates mainly on Peterkin’s oeuvre, including Roll, Jordan, Roll, the collaboration between Peterkin and photographer, Doris Ulmann. This is the first, published collaboration between a woman photographer and a woman writer. Appearing in 1933, it predates similar, collaborations, like Cabins in the Laurel, featuring a collage-like memoir by Muriel Earley Sheppard and the photographs of Bayard Wooten. Roll, Jordan, Roll also predates more famous collaborations like Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Not long ago, I discovered the work of a little-known photographer who never got recognition for his work during his lifetime, and his aesthetic speaks directly to mine in the kinds of subjects he chose and in the kinds of contexts in which he shot them. Charles Jones’s work makes me want to run out and buy produce. In fact, it has. An Englishman born in 1866, he was a lifelong gardener, a very private person according to surviving family members, and apparently, a gifted photographer who made, quite literally, the fruits of his labors his photographic subjects.
Like Vivian Maier’s work, Jones’s work was discovered accidentally. Photograph collector, Sean Sexton, found a trunk for sale at a London antique market that was filled with hundreds of photos of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Apparently, “they had been passed over and scored by dealers and collectors earlier in the day” but “Sexton instantly saw an originality and quality in the works.” (I need to frequent large flea markets more often.) Sexton then published some of the images in his book Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones in 1998, but the book was re-released in 2016 with an introduction by Alice Waters.
I can clearly see the love this photographer had for his subject matter. According to Sexton, there are no surviving negatives, so the prints are all that’s left of Mr. Jones’s legacy, in addition to a few stories by surviving relatives about the photographer himself. You can find a wonderful piece about the photographer on this site along with more of his images: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2012/03/09/charles-jones-gardener-photographer
Jones died on November 15, two days after I was born, but I’d like to think I carry forward the legacy of his work. Though I didn’t grow the plant matter I photograph, the fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other botanicals are as alive to me as they were to Jones. This one is for you, Mr. Jones, with gratitude.