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Alumnus Peter Jones is one of the world’s foremost cave photographers

You remember it. The family road trip, complete with mom and dad in the front seat of the station wagon, your little brother complaining of carsickness and you staring out the window wondering why your folks didn’t send you to summer camp. Then, like a mirage, you see it — a tourist destination that you simply can’t resist.

For Peter Jones, BA psychology ’71, that destination was California’s Sequoia National Park, and it changed his life.

During a 1961 family vacation, the 11-year-old Jones convinced his parents to visit Crystal Cave in Sequoia. Jones was mesmerized by the intense underground world. Every inch of the cave was a surprise.

“I knew at that point that I wanted to be a caver,” Jones recalls. “Inside a cave, you don’t know what’s around the next corner. It’s that feeling of not knowing that gets me.”

Jones now is a notable cave explorer and has worked as a cave photographer for National Geographic Television and Nova. His cave photographs have been displayed at the American Cave Museum, the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., and at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Most recently, Jones received a grant from the National Park Service to update its photo collection of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

Jones attributes his success to being in the right place at the right time.

Jones has been photographing caves for 34 years, but his first serious opportunity came in 1992, when he was invited to join National Geographic in filming New Mexico’s Lechugilla Cave for a public television special.

Lechugilla is 110 miles long and 1,600 feet deep. “Winds sometimes blow through the entrance passageway at up to 80 miles per hour and verge on being terrifying,” Jones says.

Because caves are completely sheltered from natural light, cave photography requires intense preparation and elaborate lighting. It takes hours to prepare for one shot in Lechugilla, Jones says, noting that the photographer and crew must sometimes pack in hundreds of pounds of equipment. And if the photos don’t turn out, it could be years before the photographer has another chance at them.

Why, then, does Jones do it?

“Caves are one of the last unexplored frontiers on the planet. They are among the places where no person has ever stepped foot,” he explains.

Jones has even discovered a cave of his own: “Andy’s Cave,” which he named after his caving mentor, Andy Komensky. In 1969, Jones spotted a small opening in a craggy mountain in New Mexico. Keeping a mental note of the location, Jones returned the next year to find that the opening was a 60-foot-deep pit into an unexplored cave.

“Cave ho! Cave ho!” he recalls shouting to his fellow explorers.

Jones enrolled at DU in 1967 intending to become an engineer. Undecided about his future plans and not happy with engineering, Jones changed his major to psychology but had no plans of making a career of it. Still searching for his passion, Jones focused his attention on extracurricular activities.

He was an active member of the DU Alpine Club, and he and fellow members often explored caves in New Mexico. In fact, his first caving expedition was with the Alpine Club. Jones even minored in geology because he enjoyed caving so much.

With one hobby in full throttle, another was just around the corner for Jones. When a fellow Alpine Club member gave him a used 35 mm camera, Jones at first didn’t know what to do with it.

“It seemed too difficult to learn the rules of photography at the time,” he says.

“I was already breaking a lot of rules in my own life, which had much to do with the state of the country,” Jones adds. Men walked on the moon, the Vietnam conflict was broadcast to every living room and Jones wanted no part of mainstream America.

Content with his passion for caves and a newfound love of photography, Jones never expected to find another love — pottery — which he discovered in a required art class during his senior year at DU.

“I remember when my father asked me what I wanted to do after graduation,” Jones recalls. “‘I want to be a potter,’ I said. My father turned white as a sheet and said, ‘Make me a drink, and make it a double.'”

But Jones’ dad eventually warmed up to the idea of his son being a professional potter and even bought him his first pottery wheel. From there, Jones began a career that has spanned more than three decades. He lives in Camden, Maine, where he spends much of his time at the pottery wheel in his home studio, creating mostly functional items such as tableware.

“In a sense, it’s funny that I have become an artist as both a potter and a photographer. I guess it’s because I love beautiful things, both seeing them and creating them,” Jones says. “I’m fortunate to have a beautiful wife and daughter as well. Lucky me.

“Creating a coffee mug that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand is beauty,” adds Jones, who makes a comfortable living selling his work (he exhibits at arts-and-crafts shows across the country).

Yet Jones’ work in clay doesn’t stop at cups and saucers. He also creates lamps and vases that replicate underground geological formations. His cave pottery has been a huge hit, Jones says, explaining that cavers like to bring a part of the caves home with them. His cave-inspired pieces give them a chance to do just that.

“I may be the only cave-potter out there,” Jones laughs.

One family vacation, a used camera and a pottery class mark the milestones in Jones’ professional life. “I love my life and I love what I do,” says the self-titled jack-of-all-trades. “My favorite things are happening all at once.”

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