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Rambling Boy

March 14th, 2013 under West Texas Talk

Alpine photographer Jim Bones publishes eighth book


Jim Bones, who has been making photographs for the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine for the past few years, has just published a new book, A Long View Southwest (Alpine: The Goathead Press, Large format, $ 132.41; small format, $67.55). It is his eighth book. In addition, his color photographs have illustrated a dozen other books and countless magazine articles on natural history and the American landscape over the past forty years. Bones, who has lived quietly in Alpine since 2005, is a nationally known nature photographer.

Jim Bones in 1962 at Lompoc High School, Vandenberg AFB, California, “back when I thought I wanted to be a rocket engineer,” said Bones. “The RocketMan photographer was Maj. Mac McGovern, director of the Lookout Mountain Air Force Photography Station, headquartered in Hollywood, Calif. His unit was in charge of filming all the missile launches at Vandenberg AFB. He was a friend of the school science club and so he helped out with some photos for a class project.”

In A Long View Southwest Bones has juxtaposed some of his finest color photographs of the Southwestern landscape, many of them taken in the Big Bend, with quotations about the Southwest taken from J. Frank Dobie’s annotated bibliography, Guide to the Life and Literature of the Southwest. Those familiar with that bibliography will recall that Dobie’s annotations to the entries are exhaustive and contain much pithy wisdom about the Southwest, and they may also recall that Dobie refused to copyright the book but instead inserted the words “Not copyright in 1942, again not copyright in 1952, anybody is welcome to help himself to any of it in any way” in place of the usual copyright notice. Bones has helped himself and the result is remarkably apt.

When we talked over coffee at the Sul Ross University Center last week, Bones told me that the book had its genesis in 1972, when he applied for a University of Texas Dobie-Paisano fellowship to spend a year at Dobie’s ranch outside Austin, which Dobie left to the University as a writers’ retreat. His proposal was to photograph the seasonal changes at the 257-acre ranch and write a book about them. Frank Wardlow, the director of the University of Texas Press who was then in charge of the Dobie-Paisano program, thought that the photography was a fine idea but suggested that John Graves, the best-known writer in Texas, write the words. Bones could hardly refuse.  The book was published in 1975 as Texas Heartland: A Hill Country Year, with a text by Graves and a “Photographer’s Introduction” by Bones.

Bones went on to write and illustrate a series of books that treat the ecology of the Southwest in ever-expanding circles. Texas Heartland, he says, is a look at the Hill County through the fingerprint of the Dobie ranch. His next book, Texas West of the Pecos (1981), grew out of his adventures as a boatman for Far Flung Adventures and dealt with the desert through the lens of the Big Bend.  A third book, Rio Grande: Mountains to the Sea (1985), integrates several regions.  He is completing another book with Mary Bones,  Islands of Wildness, which will deal with all of the major ecological regions of North America. With A Long View Southwest, Bones has come full circle, blending Dobie’s words with his own photography.

Bones started using a camera early in life. The son of an air force officer, he spent his childhood on air bases. He remembers that at the age of seventeen he was arrested at gunpoint by the Air Police on Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California for trying to photograph a Titan ICBM test launch. He had sneaked within the launch perimeter and was spotted by a helicopter while aiming his camera from a foxhole he had prepared. He was later told that the incident had led to the cancellation of the test at a cost of $40 million to the government.

At the University of Texas in the early 1960s, Bones became a student of former Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee.  Lee was teaching at the University and, impressed by an exhibit of Bones’s photography, hired him as an  assistant. Through Lee, Bones met the great nature photographer Eliot Porter, and in 1975 Porter hired Bones as his printer, teaching him the dye-transfer process of color printing. Bones worked in Porter’s darkroom in Tesuque, New Mexico until 1978 and then started teaching photography and dye-transfer printing himself, taking small groups of photographers on field trips all over North America.  Eventually, Bones says, he tired of the responsibility of taking people into the field. On one Alaska trip, he recalls, he discovered that one of the participants, a cancer patient, had come with the express purpose of dying in Alaska and another, a woman, flirted so outrageously with the crew members on the ferry they were travelling on that she involved Bones in a confrontation with a knife-wielding sailor.

In the early 1990s, Bones accepted an assignment from a group in Santa Fe called Seeds of Change, photographing vegetables as illustrations for a book on heirloom seeds. Bones said, “It was the best assignment I ever had. I could photograph the subject and then eat it – fifty varieties of tomatoes!” Through Seeds of Change Bones met Japanese microbiologist and natural farming innovator Masanobu Fukuoka, who he credits with changing his life. Fukuoka developed a method a restoring abused land with seedballs, marble-sized pellets of clay, compost, and seeds which can be broadcast by hand. Bones became a disciple, and for the past twenty years has propagated the gospel of seedballs. A fine film that he made on the subject, “The Seedball Story”, which features three Alpine youngsters, Max Bell, Rachel Sibley, and Mariah Barrick, is available on YouTube.

Bones describes himself as a naturalist, a nineteenth-century word meaning someone who studies the interaction of all nature, rather than specializing in a particular field. He is pessimistic about mankind’s efforts to control nature. “We can only work in concert with nature,” he told me. “Instead of building seawalls around our coastal cities, we should be encouraging people to migrate to higher ground. Nature always bats last.”

When I first knew Jim Bones in the early 1970s, he and his first wife, Ann Matlock, were living in a house in the country west of Austin that was built around a Ford Econoline van. Their bedroom was the body the van; the van’s roof was the floor of the guest room, and one of its sides was the wall of the kitchen. Bones referred to the van’s front seat as the television room, the television being the view of the landscape through the windshield. Watching and learning from landscape has become Bones’s life’s work.

Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at

Story filed under: West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight

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