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Bare Bones

Loss of sight caused photographer Jim Bones to see Big Bend in a different light.

By Earl Nottingham

On a boulder-strewn hillside high above the winding Rio Grande, noted landscape photographer Jim Bones peers through his camera viewfinder and sees the massive geological forces that created the face of the Big Bend region of Texas.

Mountains, canyons, rivers and desert intersect in a land where a calm inland ocean once covered all. That ancient ocean bed was thrust upward by violent upheavals, its layers broken, faulted and folded like paper. It appears to be a desolate and silent world, but it’s much more than that — it’s also a place of lush grasses, dainty wildflowers and teeming wildlife.

For Bones, a stark and visual paradox emerges when the desert’s harsh and unforgiving nature is contrasted against a temporal and fragile ecosystem. A passion for this paradox drives Bones to create his images, not so much as a photographer, but as a visual evangelist with a mission to help others understand, enjoy and become stewards of this world.

Raised as the son of an Air Force officer at Vandenberg air base in California during the Cold War, Bones was immersed in an environment of science and technology and was on the path to become an aerospace engineer until he had a life-changing moment one bright California day as he watched sea lions on the beach near Vandenberg.

“I looked down and saw a small, cone-shaped Turritella fossil,” he recalls. “At that moment, something really strange happened to me. I saw that this tiny fossil was shaped exactly like a nuclear warhead. It had been in existence for millions of years, and it struck me that we had just created a device in that same shape that could annihilate all life in a few hours. This one encounter helped cement in my mind the delicate relationship of nature and man.”


While pursuing his studies at the University of Texas, Bones took a geology class from William Muehlberger, whose charismatic teaching methods inspired him to look at the world in a more personal way.

“He made me want to communicate my love of the earth in a way that was not so scientific,” says Bones, who found that geology was the perfect way to combine his love for technology with the natural world. He gained access to a photographic darkroom in the science department and was soon shooting and processing his own black-and-white images from frequent geological study trips to Big Bend, photos he subsequently entered into the university’s exhibits. It was during one of these exhibits that his work caught the eye of photo instructor Russell Lee, the renowned Farm Security Administration photographer who had documented the plights of families during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

Lee saw talent in Bones’ work and became his greatest mentor. Lee also introduced Bones to the nature and landscape images of famed photographer Eliot Porter. Showing one of Porter’s books to the class one day, Lee shouted, “These images are not just landscapes, they are portraits of the character of the place!”

Discovering Porter’s delicate color images of grand landscapes and close-ups proved to be a seminal moment for Bones, who had been working until then just in black and white. Upon graduation in 1972, he became the first photographer to receive the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Award.

After Paisano, with an eye for photography and a knack for technology, Bones seized an opportunity to work for Eliot Porter as his darkroom technician, making Porter’s color prints using the dye-transfer method of printing, a time-intensive process that renders gorgeous photographs of archival quality. In fact, while many photographic films and prints have faded over the years, most dye-transfer images still retain their original beauty.

After venturing out on his own across the American Southwest and Big Bend, Bones combined his dye-transfer skills with the tack-sharp images from his 4x5 view camera, creating his own visual style and showing that, under its harsh veneer, the desert is beautiful and worthy of experiencing.

“The desert can be addictive,” Bones says. “Some people will always come back to it, and there are those who will never come back. There are hardly any people in between. You either love it, or it’s repulsive to you.”

Like the twisting course and unpredictable currents of the Rio Grande, Bones found that life can also be unpredictable. On an October morning in 2001, a photographer’s worst nightmare came true.

“I opened my eyes and immediately saw strange lights,” he recalls. “It looked like the world was peeling off like wallpaper coming off walls.”

A retinal detachment had rendered his dominant right eye useless. He had a cataract in his left eye, so his future in photography looked grim. After an initial surgery failed to reconnect the retina, a second attempt finally restored some vision back to the eye, but as Bones says, the result was like “looking through a fish bowl.”

Bones describes the resulting struggle over the next few years, with bad vision and mounting medical bills, as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Hope arrived with the advent of digital photography. Bones was able to digitally scan his transparencies and work with the images on a computer, which, combined with a digital printer, became his new darkroom. A new digital camera replaced the venerable old 4x5 and medium-format cameras.

After a long and winding journey, the Rio Grande comes to an end and is transformed into a new life as part of the Gulf of Mexico. Jim Bones’ journey has allowed him to be transformed and see photography — and life — as a new and brilliant palette. 

"The world I see now is not the sharp-edged world of the 4x5 camera," Bones says. "It is an impressionistic world, and I can understand how Matisse, Renoir and the other painters late in life started doing those large, fuzzy things of color as opposed to precise detail. As artists, we are only temporary vessels that inherit something, create something and then pass it along. It's still a beautiful world to see - so beautiful - and I'm happy to share it."


Jim Bones: At the "Cross Canyons," near the actual Big Bend of the Rio Grande, where the river turns north again, a large boulder-strewn sandbar provides an excellent campsite that offers an amazing display of morning reflections as golden light cascades from rim to dark water, says Jim Bones. At this gap, thousand-foot-high limestone seabed walls are folded completely upside down in an enormous overturned thrust fault. (Ektachrome 64 E-6 4x5 Daylight Film)


Jim Bones: I had intended to camp near the rim of Big Bend's Chisos Mountains to make sunset and sunrise pictures on this memorable day. As I made this exposure, a gale suddenly rose up, going from an ominous calm to winds of at least 40 miles an hour. The world was enveloped in dust as a norther blew through. I retreated to Boot Canyon for a very restless night. I gladly stayed there instead, out of the wind, and photographed colorful emory oaks and big-tooth maples in the cold autumn light. (Ektachrome 64 E-6 4x5 Daylight Film)


Jim Bones: Glenn Springs Canyon cuts through an intrusive igneous sill on the east side of the Chisos Mountains and displays spectacular banding caused by differential separation of minerals as magma cooled slowly deep underground. The brightly colored rock weathers into numerous basins called tinajas, joined by sinuous channels carved by flash floods. Stay out when it rains! (Ektachrome 50 E-3 4x5 Daylight Film)


Jim Bones: After a very wet fall and winter, an early spring brought riotous color and texture to this diverse community of fragrant plants, only to be covered a week later by snow. In successful years, Big Bend bluebonnets co-operate with hardy bees to produce a distinctive, dark signature honey of the northern Chihuahuan Desert.  Equally famous is the delightful whitebrush honey with its delicate bright taste complement. (Ektachrome 64 E-6 4x5 Daylight Film)


Jim Bones: “Singing Cowboy Doug” Caldwell Davis rides through creosote brush and dry cottonwoods on the way from the old Buena Suerte Ranch headquarters to Segundo Falls in Big Bend Ranch State Park. This picture was made on a 30-mile, all-day trip that tested my resolve to carry a 4x5 goliath on horseback when the right choice was more likely a 35mm peashooter. Beloved for his music and quick pepper wit, our friend died of cancer in 2012 and is missed by many across Texas. (Kodachrome 200 35mm Daylight Film)


Jim Bones: The name of this plant, New Deal weed, comes from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era. In an attempt to recover land from severe drought, Baccharis neglecta shrubs were widely planted to revegetate damaged soil. However, its aggressive habits enabled it to invade streams and disturbed land. Here, however, amid cavernous cracks in flood mud in the Rio Grande floodplain, these sprouts are destined to drink deep and grow into thickets that stabilize an eroding river bank. (Ektachrome 64 E-6 4x5 Daylight Film)


Jim Bones: Thriving impossibly on white volcanic ash at the Penguin Rocks, leatherstem — or sangra de drago, the dragon blood plant with reddish, astringent sap — displays all the colors of an eastern fall forest after an early frost at Big Bend Ranch. Ocotillo, yucca, pitaya cactus and mesquite share this sloping neighborhood that is gradually sliding toward the Rio Grande. (Ektachrome 64 E-6 4x5 Daylight Film)


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