Performance of a Lifetime

Jerry Jacka mastered the accordion at the age of 4. Over the next eight decades, he would become a master of photography, forensic science and human kindness. Although he shunned the spotlight, it's his star that shines the brightest.

Performance of a Lifetime

By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph Courtesy of the Jacka Family

The Homesteader

Of all the trees on the Sun-Up Ranch, the pine stands out. It grows amid saguaros, chollas and palms on a desert parcel north of Phoenix. Dense and green, the tree’s branches grow east and west, reaching, reaching, toward a nearby ironwood that belonged to the land long before the land belonged to people.

On a winter morning here, the wind blows with such fire, it shakes the trees in the orchard, where fat grapefruits and oranges and lemons provide food for the woodpeckers and thrashers and sparrows that nest nearby, somewhere in those resilient trees.

There are water tanks. A windmill. An old stove inside. Hats above the mantel. These are the remnants and memories of nearly 90 years of family history.

This is where Jerry Jacka grew up.

His parents drove west from Chicago in their Ford Model A in the spring of 1929, finding the desert awash in wildflowers and beauty. With a tent and a few essentials, they began the long, slow process of homesteading 640 acres on the banks of the New River wash, setting saguaro skeletons into the rock and caliche to mark corners, burning the barbed bodies of teddy bear chollas to clear them from the land.

“Living on an Arizona homestead in the early 1930s was an arduous task which demanded days of back-breaking labor and scraping out a living by any possible means,” Jerry wrote in his 2011 book, Sun-Up Ranch: An Arizona Desert Homestead. “It was a tough life which demanded a sturdy pioneer spirit, a strong work ethic (and body), perseverance and fortitude.”

It is little wonder these are the same words so many people use to characterize Jerry himself.

Born in July 1934, Jerry was the only child of Jerry and Rose Jacka, who both left jobs at electric companies in Chicago to make a go of it in Arizona. As they brought life to their arid desert home, Jerry Sr. made photographs — documenting Jerry Jr. on the back of a horse and playing between the stone structures the elder Jackas had built. There were photos of Jerry Jr. on the banks of the stock tank his father dug by hand. Images of the snakes that made their way to the homestead, and of the friends who helped the Jackas build and dig and irrigate and grow.

“Although I heard many of my parents’ stories countless times, I never tired of hearing them,” Jerry wrote. “Fortunately, my dad enjoyed taking photographs. Using a variety of early folding and box cameras, he constantly took pictures of their many activities during the homestead days. … Also, Dad kept many of his homestead documents, notes, and other papers of interest which have been invaluable in putting together a history of the ranch.”

It is a history directly linked to Jerry’s own, as well as to what would become his tender, reverent treatment of Arizona’s landscapes and its people.

“Only a person who has lived in a remote area of the Sonoran Desert for a long time can fully appreciate the magic of this environment,” he wrote. “There was the bittersweet smell of the wet creosote bush and sage brush after a rain. The coming of the long-awaited summer rains was always a joyous event. I remember one occasion in particular after a very long dry spell. I was engaged in my daily chore of practicing my accordion. There was a hot breeze; it was humid and clouds were building overhead. Suddenly it began raining ‘buckets of water.’ Dad began running through the house whooping and hollering and I began playing a polka as loud and fast as I could. It was time to celebrate!”

That accordion-playing child — he attributed his love of the instrument to his Bohemian heritage — wandered the desert near his home, exploring the remnants of the Hohokam people, who had settled the area some 700 years before.

There were scattered grinding stones, arrow points and broken pottery. Long lines of stones that were makeshift dams. The remnants of pit houses. A few petroglyphs. Objects of mystery and treasure to a young boy.

And, of course, Jerry went to school — in a one-room schoolhouse with 12 other students. One of them was Lois Essary, the daughter of a family that homesteaded 5 miles away.

Decades later, in a conversation with former Arizona Highways Photo Editor J. Peter Mortimer at the Jackas’ ranch home on the Mogollon Rim, the couple recounted pieces of their pioneer courtship.

They studied together until third grade, when Jerry transitioned to Grandview School in Phoenix. His father had taken a job as a security officer at Thunderbird Field during World War II, while his mother helped the war effort by assembling airplanes — another real-life Rosie the Riveter.

After the war, though, and after returning to live at the ranch, the younger Jacka was reunited with Lois at Glendale High School. They graduated in 1952. They were married in 1953.

“Lois found me a job,” Jerry told Peter. “See, I was trying to resist getting married.”

“He was really fighting,” she quipped.

But that first job would turn into a career.

Moreover, it would turn into Jerry’s life’s work and his passion.

The Photographer

The ad read something along the lines of: “Wanted. Portrait photographer. No experience necessary.”

A man named Kermit Sanders, who owned Joyce Studio on Indian School Road in Phoenix, published the ad in the newspaper. Jerry responded. He got the job — photographing babies.

As he told Peter, a “caller” would go door to door in Phoenix neighborhoods and offer special pricing on photographs. Jerry would set up a makeshift studio in his clients’ homes, shoot, then return to Joyce Studio with the film, where it was processed and proofs were shown to clients.

It wasn’t easy, but it was a decent, semi-regular commission. The newlyweds were living on the Sun-Up Ranch, tending to things there, while Jerry Sr. looked after the Sunup Café, the restaurant venture the family had begun years earlier.

Several times a week, the young couple would travel from New River to Mesa, where, with his accordion in hand, Jerry would play square dances. They would promenade and do-si-do into the evening.

According to music historian Joe Baker, it’s just part of Jerry’s Arizona music legacy.

“If you go back far enough, you’ll find newspaper articles from the early 1950s that discuss Jerry’s proficiency with the accordion,” Joe says. “He really was a prodigy.”

Jerry played as a studio musician when he wasn’t behind the camera, joining Schroeder’s Playboys to record on Phoenix’s Western Jubilee record label before forming the Jerry Jacka Trio in 1954 and recording for Old Timer records.

In all, Joe discovered, Jerry recorded two dozen singles with the trio, as well as a handful of other records where he wasn’t credited on accordion at all.

Still, his style was jubilant, recognizable, his.

“He was a wonderful player,” Joe says. “He could play anything, and he’d play it with excitement. He just had a way about him that was really fun. He was a master musician.”

And while music would remain a staple in Jerry’s life, he found he needed to move on from the baby-portrait business, especially as his own family grew — a son, Mike, was born in 1955, and a daughter, Cindy, followed in 1957. What’s more, the Jackas had purchased their own homestead, 640 acres from neighbors Fred and Blanche Banger.

So, Jerry maintained a friendly relationship with studio owner Sanders, but he became a deputy for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in December 1956.

“Photography was in my blood,” he said. “Even when I was a patrolman, I carried an old 5x7 view camera in the back of the car. If I was out in the desert patrolling and something nice came along, I’d stop, turn the radio up loud and go take a picture.”

After a few years, Jerry negotiated with Sanders to buy Joyce Studio. He planned to leave law enforcement and focus solely on his photography. Sadly, his plans were dashed by a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that left him paralyzed and unable to breathe on his own.

For a man so used to working, to looking after land and loved ones, it was devastating. He spent nine months receiving treatments, then recovered and returned to MCSO to begin anew “on the desk.” The deal with Sanders fell through.

In time, though, Jerry was promoted to the forensics team, learning fingerprinting methods and crime-scene photography. He went to classes hosted by the FBI, testified in court, more.

“As I look back, it really taught me to pay attention to detail,” Jerry told Peter. “That’s all I was doing — photographing details and telling a jury of laypersons that this screwdriver made this mark at this burglary.”

All the while, he was photographing details elsewhere, too, and quietly submitting photos to Arizona Highways.

And then, in July 1958, his first photograph appeared in the pages of the magazine. It was, in his words, a “god-awful shot of the Painted Desert,” made on his honeymoon. Slowly, over the decades that followed, he became a regular and frequent contributor to the magazine. One look at the portfolio that follows these words, and you’ll understand why.

There are broad, beautiful landscapes. Only a person who has lived in a remote area of the Sonoran Desert for a long time can fully appreciate the magic of this environment.

And there are intimate portraits of Native people. Light and shadows. Fine attention to angles and faces and history.

To life.

Eventually, Jerry became Arizona Highways’ go-to photographer for shots of Indian art and artifacts. It was his consideration of detail that made him a great photographer. But it was his gentle persistence, his kindness and his humility that opened his doors, particularly after his celebrated “pottery issue” in February 1974.

“The Hopis, the Navajos, they’re no different from you and me,” he told me for an article in 2010. “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.”

One such friend is jewelry artist Jesse Monongye, who’s gained worldwide recognition for his delicate, intricate inlay work. He attributes some of his success to Jerry’s photographs of his creations. But, more importantly, he remembers a champion of Arizona’s tribes and Native people.

“If Jerry showed up, you made room for him,” Jesse says. “He had that very unique feeling about him. It set in on you. He moved very slowly, very professionally. And you’d learn a lot from being around him. He had a beautiful persona and a very gentle touch about him. Maybe he’d only say a few words, but they would be meaningful.”

Indeed, Jesse, who is half Hopi and half Navajo, looks to Jerry as the only photographer who perfectly captured the essence of his jewelry — stunning opal bears surrounded by gold and lapis. Shánidíín. New beginning. Corn maiden Katsina dancers made from ironwood, turquoise and oxblood coral.

Beauty. Heritage. Color.

At times, Jesse would face challenges, the occasional criticism and badgering that was part and parcel of being a member of two tribes.

“Jerry always understood that the art was in the human being, and it didn’t matter what tribe you were from,” Jesse says. “He just saw the art in people.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Pam Hait, with whom Jerry worked on many stories for the magazine. Together, they traveled often to the Navajo Nation and to the mesas of the Hopi Tribe. Always, she felt fortunate to work with the incomparable Jerry Jacka.

“He was a perfectionist with his work,” she remembers. “His photographs were spectacular because he was a spectacular photographer, but he never thought of himself that way. He was good because he worked so hard at it.”

And that humility and drive granted him access that most other photographers didn’t have — particularly in places like Canyon de Chelly, where he was allowed to enter ruins. It happened also in Monument Valley, where he was often invited into hogans for tea.

In one photograph from the canyon, made in 1976, Jerry shot Mummy Cave Ruin from the inside out, because he wanted to “capture a view of what the Anasazi people would have seen as they looked out into Canyon del Muerto.”

In another, he looks at First Ruin from behind an ancient, handsome cottonwood tree. The image ran as part of an Arizona Highways portfolio in March 2016. About it, Jerry commented: “First Ruin is the first cliff dwelling of any significance you encounter at Canyon de Chelly. This is midmorning light. The shadow of the cottonwood and an adjoining cottonwood made a natural frame. It worked.”

It always worked.

Photos from within hogans. On school buses. Of Apache dancers. Of children. The now-famous photograph of the Hopi village of Walpi.

“People talk about having a love for Native people, but Jerry was more one of them,” Pam says. “When you hung out with Jerry, you realized he was just himself, and people just adored him. He had such overwhelming respect for the traditions and the culture and the people.”

His unique 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. The Jackas and Udall had collaborated on a book retracing the steps of explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado across the desert Southwest.

“Stewart wanted to take a side trip to show [Jackie] Canyon de Chelly, and it was like a production,” Jerry said. “We took 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 said in 2010. “She excused herself and said she just wanted her girl to shake Jackie’s hand. People just loved her.”

People loved Jerry, too.

And even though the words we grasp at in an effort to describe the depth of his legacy as both a photographer and a man fall short, especially given the depth of his character, his images speak for themselves. And they endure — in all, he published more than 1,500 photographs in Arizona Highways magazines and books, and his work appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Sunset, American Indian Art, more. He also published 15 books, five of them with his beloved Lois, whose words were pure poetry next to Jerry’s photographs.

“When I think about Jerry Jacka, three words come to mind: humility, integrity and relationships,” says Arizona Highways Photo Editor Jeff Kida. “In the world of photography, we tend to put a ton of emphasis on shutter speeds, f-stops and ISOs. Jerry was well versed in his craft, but what I saw in him surpassed his considerable technical abilities. He was a people person, he listened, he was patient, and he was someone you could trust. Always. I don’t ever remember hearing Jerry bragging about himself or his photography. He was grateful for every opportunity that came his way. Remembering that, I need to add a fourth word to my memories of Jerry: gratitude. I am so lucky and grateful to have known him.”

The Man

“In a life properly lived, you’re a river.” 

Those were the words of writer Jim Harrison. Perhaps we shouldn’t edit the work of the masters, but we can take certain liberties, I think, for Jerry Jacka. Others might agree. Jim, had he had the pleasure of meeting Jerry, would have approved. Because Jerry Jacka was a tree — solid, steady, strong.

In a life properly lived, you’re a tree. 

Often, he’d entertain family and friends in the home he shared with Lois on the Mogollon Rim, surrounded by forest and sky. His laughter echoed from the walls, which themselves tell stories. Covered in Navajo and Hopi rugs and ancient pottery, they are the index of a long life well and beautifully traveled.

Sometimes, Jerry’s big hands would gesture as he eased into his tales. Sometimes, his gaze would drift to the massive juniper in the living room — its gnarled old trunk and its branches the centerpiece of the home.

Always, he was welcoming, gracious, humble.

Indeed, the beauty of Jerry Jacka is told best by the people who loved him best.

For Brad Ellgen, a pastor who spoke at Jerry’s memorial service in December, the man was a living example of generosity and kindness.

“I first met Jerry in 1972 when hanging out at their home,” Brad remembers. “I was invited by their son, Mike. The welcome I received was life-changing. Jerry was always ready to help with whatever an awkward high school kid like me needed. He would drop what he was doing and come immediately to my rescue. Once, my car stalled in the middle of the road, and he pulled me to safety. He helped me fix my guitar when I was trying to learn.”

When Brad married his wife, Debbie, after Jerry had become well known, Jerry photographed the wedding.

“I was in the Navy, on my way to Japan, and we only gave him a couple of days’ notice,” Brad says. “He didn’t hesitate and took beautiful photographs of the wedding. He wouldn’t accept any payment for his work.”

Decades later, when Brad went through a trying time, he received an unexpected phone call.

“Jerry called out of the blue to tell me that he had great faith in who I was and what I was doing,” Brad says. “He didn’t say a lot, but it was sincere. It was probably the most encouraging phone call I have ever received.”

For his own children — Mike, an accountant, and Cindy, who has long overseen the business aspect of Jerry Jacka Photography — he was an inspiration, his work a reason for adventure.

“I grew up thinking everyone went on vacation to the reservation to sit for hours, waiting for the sun and clouds to get just right,” Mike says. “And he is one of the main reasons I still enjoy going out and seeing the canyons, the waterfalls — everything from lush forests to seemingly barren deserts. We got to have experiences that, without us knowing it at the time, were beyond any that most families got to have, and ones that really can’t be reproduced anymore.”

As an example, the family was invited to experience a Hopi Katsina dance. Inside a kiva. At midnight.

Mike also cites Jerry as the spur for his first college degree — in archaeology.

For Cindy, Jerry’s ethic and amiable spirit became guiding principles in her own life.

“Dad’s vision through the camera, and of life, opened my eyes to the beauty of nature, life and people,” she says. “In my childhood, and actually all of my life, I’ve had amazing opportunities to go places and meet people that most others never have, and I’m forever grateful for his influence. Dad’s work is cherished by so many people, and it’s an honor to see it daily.”

To his grandchildren, who called him “Gompy,” Jerry had a sense of humor, an abiding sense of presence and — maybe — just a little bit of stubbornness.

“When I was 18 or so, my digital camera broke and I, of course, took it to my grandpa, since he was the photography expert,” says Sally Jacka, who coined “Gompy” when she couldn’t say “Grandpa” as a toddler. “Despite it being newer technology than he was used to, he messed around with it for an hour or so.”

Eventually, Jerry gave up — not something he particularly enjoyed doing, Sally says — but he told her to get in the car. They were going to buy her a new camera.

His reasoning? “No Jacka should be without a camera,” she says. “He’d probably make fun of me now for only having the camera on my phone, but at the same time, he’d want me to tell him the ins and outs of how it worked. That was how he worked, and I’ll always appreciate his passion for photography and the influence it had on me.”

Of course, no one will feel the void of Jerry’s passing more than Lois, who walked side by side with him for more than six decades. And who loved him longer.

Because, in life, Jerry filled so much space.

“Our lives were all about photography,” Lois says. “Vacations became photo shoots, and all roads seemed to lead to an Indian reservation. The adventures we all shared created a lifetime of lasting memories. After more than 64 years together, I have lost a great husband, my working partner, the love of my life and my best friend. I miss him every moment of every day. Now, I can only picture him climbing one of heaven’s highest mountain peaks with a 4x5 camera mounted on a tripod, slung over his shoulder.”


As writers and as journalists, we’re expected to maintain objectivity and distance with our subjects. With Jerry Jacka, that was impossible. I met Jerry very early in my career, when I had the distinct honor of profiling him for this magazine. I made an error of fact. I was humiliated. But when he called me to talk about it — I was driving, on Interstate 17 about 10 miles south of the Sun-Up Ranch — he chuckled in that reassuring way of his and said, “Don’t worry, Kelly. You have a lot more words ahead of you.” In the years since, I’ve been privileged to visit Jerry and Lois at their beautiful ranch on the Mogollon Rim. We shared meals and laughter, and Jerry spun his stories. He became someone very meaningful to me — someone I knew I’d tell my children about when they were old enough to understand. In many ways, he reminded me of my own grandfather, George, who died a lifetime ago and whose handmade Hopi bear claw ring I wear with pride.

I thought I might see Jerry one more time before he left us. I had a few more questions to ask him. There were a few more stories I hoped to hear. More importantly, I wanted to tell him that I was grateful for his friendship. Although I didn’t have the chance, the Jacka family was gracious enough to let me visit the Sun-Up one Tuesday morning in mid-January. The wind rattled the trees. The birds called. The whirr of trucks on the interstate was white noise. I whispered that I missed my friend. Somehow, I hope he heard me. — KV

Read more about Jerry Jacka in the April 2018 issue of Arizona Highways.