Q&A with Jerry Jacka by Dan Jacka (and yes, they are related)

When Dan Jacka started his internship at Arizona Highways, the team was quite surprised to learn that he had zero interest in photography (however, he did possess a boggling passion for ranch dressing). That’s because his grandfather is the iconic photographer, Jerry Jacka. Jerry is perhaps best known for his wonderful shots of Indian art and artifacts, and his legacy certainly lives on—especially in his cover shot for the January 1974 Turquoise Attitudes issue, which remains the best selling issue of Arizona Highways to date. His work has also appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian MagazineNational Parks Publications, Readers Digest Books, Sunset and Native Peoples. 

Although Dan may not be following in his grandfather’s footsteps, we still think it’s pretty cool that we have another Jacka here at the office with those same grizzly-sized hands. We asked Dan to interview his grandfather about his craft and how he eventually landed his very first photo gig with Highways.

Why did you get started in photography?

I got started in photography while I was in high school, and my dream was to get a photograph published in Arizona Highways. When I was still in school, I delivered some pictures of rattlesnakes and old, dead trees to Raymond Carlson, the editor of the magazine at that time. He said, “Gee they look good, thanks, but no thanks.” So I just kept trying. My high school teacher loaned me cameras to take and he would give me the key to the dark room during summer break.  My folks also encouraged me to keep shooting. I just kept at it and eventually, I got lucky with Arizona Highways and that was it.

What was your first photo that got published by Highways?

It was either a picture of a yucca cactus in bloom taken near Prescott, Arizona—which I think was the back cover of the magazine—or it was a picture taken on my honeymoon of the Painted Desert. They were both published in the magazine, but I don’t recall which was taken first.

What’s the most difficult time you had taking a photo?

Oh mercy. Once, I was on an assignment for Arizona Highways and Stewart Udall was writing about Coronado’s adventures into Arizona. I was trying to document the trail that Coronado covered. I was near the Arizona-New Mexico border hoping to get a couple of really dramatic shots when the weather turned rotten. It was rainy, and after sleeping in my blazer for two days, I got a break one afternoon. I ran over to Zuni, New Mexico and took a picture of the Zuni Sacred Mountain, but on the way back to where I was staying in Pine Top, there was an awesome sunset, a rain storm and windmill in the foreground. I drove past it, came back, and realized, “man, I’m passing up the shot of the trip!” So I crawled through a barb wire fence and set up my 4×5 camera on a tripod. Then, a bunch of cows came right up to me and the camera. All I could see was the nose and eyes of cows, so I had to try and chase them away. Once they were chased away, the windmill started spinning back and forth, so I decided to use a technique called “pushing your film.” Instead of a slow shutter speed, I cranked it up to about 200th of a second, made some notes on my film and when it went to the lab, I made them “push” the film. That means they increased the film speed by overdeveloping it. I spent so much time on one picture, but it worked and it was the best out of the whole deal.

Where do you think photography is going to go from here?  What more changes do you see happening?

First of all, I can’t even begin to predict what more will change in this digital age—I’m still trying to learn myself. Even though I’m retired, I’m still playing around with the technology and learning the ins and outs. Where it’s going? I have no idea. The only thing I see happening is that anybody with the slightest interest in photography can now become a “photographer.” It makes it a little more difficult for those of use who have struggled in our careers to become successful. It’s so much easier to shoot 100, 300 or 500 pictures and get a couple good shots out of it. So we’re going to see more and more names in publications.

You’ve lived in Arizona your entire life, why have you stayed?

I don’t even know where else I’d care to live, but Arizona has everything. It has the desert, it has the high country, it has the biggest Ponderosa pine forest in the country, and it has places like the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly. I will never live long enough to see all the places in Arizona that I’d like to see. I guess I’m partial to Arizona because I was born here, but I wouldn’t even think about going any place else.

What are some of your favorite places?

Canyon de Chelly, to me, is a magical place for a number of reasons. First of all, the beauty of the canyon itself—all of the red rocks and the cottonwood trees—it’s just a beautiful place. Something else dear to my heart is the prehistoric culture, the people who lived here prior to the 1500’s: the Anasazi lived there, the early Hopi people, there are all these wonderful ruins, rock art that they’ve left behind.  How can you not like that?  Thirdly, you have the Navajo people that live there now and farm in the canyon and live around the edges.  You have this blending of the ancient and the new and I just think it’s a magical place.

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Filed under Inside Scoop, Photography, Q&A

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