Jerry DutyBecause this is the photography issue, we wanted our Journal profile to spotlight one of the iconic photographers of the industry. The choice was easy — we simply sent our writer north to interview Jerry Jacka.
By Kelly Kramer
Heber Sitting in a chain restaurant in Payson with Jerry Jacka is kind of how you'd imagine going to yoga with Elvis. Things just don't add up.
Elvis, had he not left the building, should be onstage somewhere, dancing and sweating and hunka-hunka-burnin'-loving into the wee hours of the night with a bevy of women and a plateful of peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwiches. Likewise, Jacka should be behind the lens of a camera in some beautiful Arizona landscape, documenting the state and its people, building relationships and making beautiful images.
Instead, his grizzly sized paws are pushing a fork around a plate of barbecued-chicken salad while he discusses some of the first photographs he ever made — images of rattlesnakes coiled next to beer bottles and cow skulls. Those photos never made it into the pages of this magazine, but Jacka, who worked for a time as a forensics photographer, does credit Arizona Highways with launching his photographic career.
"My parents always had the magazine lying around, and I saw one photograph by Ray Manley that just struck me," he says. "He had shot some Indian artifacts, and there were some artifacts around when I was in high school that I had tried to photograph. I had a dream that one day my images would appear in Arizona Highways."
After several rejections, Jacka's work finally made its way into print. His first published photograph — in the July 1958 issue of Arizona Highways — was a "gosh-awful" shot of the Painted Desert that he took while on his honeymoon with his wife, Lois.
Of course, Lois was at the lunch, too. Jerry wouldn't be Jerry without his wife, his right hand and his writer, Lois Essary Jacka, who hasn't really left his side since first grade. "Lois and I were both raised on neighboring ranches in North Phoenix, and we walked to our one-room school together," Jerry says. "She found me a job so we could get married at 18 years old. The job was as a baby photographer, and I didn't know one end of a baby from the other."
She showed him, which was a good thing, considering the couple has since raised two children of their own.
Eventually, Jerry became Arizona Highways' go-to photographer for shots of Indian art and artifacts, and gained worldwide acclaim for his cover shot of the January 1974 Turquoise Attitudes issue, which still ranks as the best-selling issue ever of Arizona Highways.
Throughout his career, Jerry built special relationships with Arizona's Native American residents. They knew, he says, that if he photographed their art, the art might sell.
"We'd have just thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and art in our possession for Jerry to photograph," Lois says. "People trusted us. Whenever we visited the reservations, the people knew that we weren't looking down at them. We were very much like them." The couple recalls becoming such good friends with Hopi families that they were invited into kivas and to observe ceremonies — celebrations of rites that are traditionally closed to visitors.
And, with the Navajos, the Jackas would "buy a rug here and there." Jacka was drawn to Indian art and, luckily, he says, he's married to a gal who will tolerate his passion.
"The Hopis, the Navajos, they're no different from you and me," he adds. "The biggest bit of wisdom we learned from all of our time with them was respect. We respected them and they respected us. We made some beautiful friendships."
Those relationships even led to a special trip to the Navajo Nation with the late conservationist Stewart Udall and Udall's good friend, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Udall and the Jackas had collaborated on a book about Coronado, and Udall and Onassis visited Arizona to retrace some of the explorer's steps.
"Stewart wanted to take a side trip to show her Canyon de Chelly, and it was like a production," Jerry says. "We took her down this path to show her White House Ruin. We were down about 500 yards and here came this old Navajo with a herd of sheep. It was like we ordered it up for her — the whole scene."
Later, at a place called Corner Café, the former first lady ordered Navajo tacos and a little bit of ice cream. "A lady came up — a Navajo lady — and a little girl," Jerry says, a lump rising in his throat. "She excused herself and said she just wanted her girl to shake Jackie's hand. People just loved her."
Many people just love Jerry, too, from fellow photographers to art aficionados to longtime readers of Arizona Highways. At 75, he's no longer running around the state with a camera to his eye. Instead, the Elvis of Southwestern photography can be found at his Heber-area ranch with Lois, and "plenty of stuff to do."