Printmaker Richard Jackson Remembers Jerry Jacka

Jerry Jacka lines up a shot at Lake Powell. | Courtesy of the Jacka family

Our April issue, on newsstands now, honors legendary photographer Jerry Jacka, who contributed photographs to Arizona Highways for parts of seven decades before his death late last year. For the issue, we asked those who knew Jerry best to share their thoughts about him.

One of the people we asked was master printmaker Richard Jackson, who worked with Jerry many times over the years. While his full thoughts were too lengthy to include in the issue, we're happy to share them here.

I met Jerry in 1978 or 1979.  I had just moved to Phoenix, Arizona, from Illinois to start a new photo lab. I had read and admired the images presented in Arizona Highways while living in Illinois before moving to Phoenix. I had always dreamed that someday I would make prints for some of the photographers whose images I admired and were published in the magazine.

It wasn’t too many months after starting my new photo lab, Jerry Jacka walked into my lab. With all due respect to everyone else who had come in before him, I thought Jerry was my first important “really big deal” photographer that crossed my threshold.

The first time he came in, he didn’t give me an image to print.  He wanted to meet me and find out what services I was offering and, I think, just check me out. It wasn’t long after that he came in again, but this time he wanted me to make him a 16x20 print from one of his beautiful 4x5 transparencies. He asked me if I could match the print I made to his original transparency. Of course I said yes. I was pretty young, and thought I was a pretty good printer and this was my chance to prove my skills to none other than Jerry Jacka.

He didn’t like the print I made.  At first I couldn’t understand why, since I thought it was a really nice print. I put my all into making it the nicest print I thought it could be, and so when Jerry looked at the print and didn’t jump for joy, I was crushed. Not only did he not jump for joy, he proceeded to explain why the print didn’t work for him. He needed a little more detail in a shadow area, slightly more density in another place, and the color was a bit too warm overall.

Well, of course, I made those changes, and when he saw the second print, he liked it. I was pleased about that, but for some time, couldn’t understand why he didn’t like my first print. 

I made more prints for Jerry and other photographers and continued to run into the same issue. About half the time, I would need to make a second print with corrections indicated by Jerry and the other photographers for whom I was printing. This was even though I thought my prints were quite good.

Then one day I had an epiphany: The print I am making is not my print! It’s Jerry’s print. So what if I started asking questions of Jerry before I print to find out what he wanted before I go into the darkroom? That approach worked much better. Now my first-print approvals went way up! Once I started thinking about the needs of my client first, I got better results for them.

The reason I tell this story is I believe it was Jerry who first helped me realize that finding out more information about an image, and even the story behind the image, helps me create a print that then helps Jerry tell his story better for his client.

Learning about your subject in as much detail as possible was always Jerry’s approach to his creative photography and storytelling. He did his research. He met his subjects and got to know them before he pulled out his camera. His beautiful, groundbreaking photography of Native American artwork was because he knew what was important to the artist and then did whatever it took to present the artwork in a way that captured the artist's vision. He was a genius at doing this over and over again.

Jerry never compromised for his love of his family, his love of his work and the love he showed to so many he touched.

It was an honor to make some of Jerry’s prints over the years. He taught me so much by the example of excellence he set for himself. I owe him a lot and will miss him always.

— Richard Jackson

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