Photographers who have inspired me- Charles Jones

The photographer

During the 1890s, a photographer named Charles Harry Jones took several positions as a master gardener in England, including the Ote Hall, a famous country venue in Sussex. In 1905, Jones received honorable mention in the September 20th issue of “The Gardner’s’ Chronicle”. Little is known about Charles Jones’ activities up his death, about half a century later.

What very few people knew about Charles Jones during his lifetime is that he created a series of gelatin silver prints of the vegetables, fruits, and flowers he had harvested himself. Apparently, he did not share his interest with people outside his family. He died in 1959 in Lincolnshire.

Two decades after Jones’ death, in 1981, Sean Sexton, a collector, found several of Charles Jones’ prints in the Bermondsey Market. Sexton was able to trace the photographs through Jones’ granddaughter, who recognized the prints after seeing them displayed on the BBC. Sexton wrote a monograph about Jones and his findings were later published in a book.

The book about the photographer

The book (see reference below) has a short introduction about Jones, followed by about 100 pages displaying 8X10 reproductions of his prints. Most photographs are leafy vegetables and roots, but towards the end there are a few photographs of flowers and fruit. The prints are beautifully executed against grey background, they are very sharp and reveal enormous richness of texture and detail.

I am not going to show the photos here because I don’t want to get in trouble with the publishers, but a quick search on google for “Charles Jones” will return several of his images. Nothing, however, equals looking at the photos printed on the book. What raised my interest.

The mystery surrounding Charles Jones’ work

What I find most interesting, puzzling, and inspiring about Charles Jones’ work is the fact that there isn’t much information about it. Unlike other photographers of his time, Jones did not leave a diary, notes, publications, or any information that complements, explains, or directs the interpretation of his photography.

Think about this: we share so many photos and so much information about them. We write about our creative process, spell out camera settings and post-processing techniques. Some photographers write about what they think their photos “mean”, which stories they tell, or how they should be interpreted. In all this, where is the viewer? How is the viewer supposed to find, in the work of modern photographers, his own meaning, her own story, his own interpretations?

I highly recommend the book to photographers, particularly those interested in botanical subjects. Reference below. 

Reference: Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones. The Outsider Genius Saved from Obscurity by Chance Discovery. Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson. Preface by Alice WatersThames and Hudson, 1998. 128 pp. 

Published by Alessandra Chaves

Photographer with a preference for nature photography in black and white and other abstractions.

22 thoughts on “Photographers who have inspired me- Charles Jones

  1. Thank you Alessandra. I had not researched any of his work. Excellent use of light….and some 20-30 years prior to Weston’s emergence. I agree with your comment on interpretation, it’s personal.

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  2. Wow ! I found a link for Howard Greenberg gallery in NY that had his works exhibited in 2006. I think what I love most about his photographs is that he wasn’t afraid of the darkness of black shadows. I’m truly inspired by the way he captured these subjects. Bona fide photography … ya that’s what I’m feeling here. Thanks so much for sharing !

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    1. That’s a good observation, about the shadows. I love the book, great for coffee table entertainment of visits. Oh hold on a minute. No visits recently, everybody is afraid of the Greek alphabet!

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      1. Covid is really bad here again. I don’t leave the house much unless absolutely necessary. My brother in law passed last month of Covid pneumonia and he was vaccinated. Sad times.

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  3. “Jones did not leave a diary, notes, publications, or any information that complements, explains, or directs the interpretation of his photography.”

    Even with that information the style of presentation and viewing went more toward initial viewing and assimilation of the images.while there were photographers being discovered, like Bellocq with his Storyville Portraits about whom almost nothing was known, same for Vivian Maier, Mike Disfarmer, even James Vanderzee.

    You’re correct in your following paragraph in that, at an extreme, the image has become at times irrelevant with respect to the intro and self-analysis to direct viewers attention and predetermine responses. One photographer wrote a controversial article about this trend from an academic standpoint. My initial impression was that Frames intended to counter that tendency with principal if not sole concern for the images, and for a time that seemed to be the case, still is at times, but not infrequently it is more like 50-50 or even more toward explanation.

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    1. Twice I was asked to submit images to Frames, I was asked a lot of questions and for the “ story” one answer had to be a certain number of words and it was long. It’s difficult for a magazine to engage an audience with only pictures. Same with a gallery. Sometimes when I go to a gallery I see the images first then in the end I read the information.

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      1. Do you find the information changes your response to the images if you take another look at them?

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  4. Reading about Jones, I couldn’t help thinking of this line that Mark Twain left in his notebooks: “Obscurity and a competence—that is the life that is best worth living.”

    I certainly never had heard of Jones, but I was astonished to see who’d written the forward to the book: Alice Waters. Given the fruits and vegetables, that has to be the Alice Waters I know (although not personally). She began the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley a few years before I arrived there, and I was lucky enough to dine there a couple of times over the years. By the time of my first visit, the transition away from traditional French to more ‘American’ cuisine had begun. Her emphasis on locally sourced, organically grown foods would make her a natural to write an introduction to a book like this.

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