Community helping identify subjects in Nash photo archive

Black and white photo of migrant laborers in a field in the Yakima Valley.
Migrant laborers in the Yakima Valley. Photo by Irwin Nash.

A trove of old negatives has inspired an overlooked community.   

A Facebook group is collaborating to tell the stories behind images of migrant farmworkers in Washington’s Yakima Valley photographed five decades ago.

Washington State University owns the photo archive, after buying the images from Seattle photographer Irwin Nash in the early 1990s. Nash documented the life experiences of migrant laborers in the Yakima Valley between 1967 and 1976, saying later that he was motivated to “call attention to the plight of a segment of the population that has never received the recognition and compensation merited by their contribution to society.”

Digitizing the negatives was a multi-year endeavor, funded in large part by people in the Yakima Valley.

Once that work was done and the photos were available online, “the goal post changed,” said Lipi Turner-Rahman, the former librarian who headed up that work who is now director of development for WSU Libraries.

“It was very important that the individuals in those photographs be identified, that their names are on the record,” Turner-Rahman said.

Currently most of the photos have generic information, such as “a woman in a field picking asparagus.”

“It is factually correct, it is a woman in a field picking asparagus, but that individual has a name, a story, a narrative that isn’t told because we don’t know her name or her history,” Turner-Rahman said.

She started a Facebook group called Nash Photo Collection where she posts images and group members share information on location or subject matter.

“It’s a slow process, but it’s an ongoing rewriting of the narrative so that the Yakima Valley community is able to get their story out,” Turner-Rahman said, adding that she hoped to begin gathering oral histories soon.

Francisco S. Martinez is a member of the Nash Photo Facebook group and remembers Irwin Nash visiting his hometown of Granger, Washington.

“I was kind of like, ‘Why’s that guy taking pictures?’” Martinez recalled. He was in high school at the time and his family members were farmworkers. Now, he has helped identify some of the people he grew up with and believes the Nash collection is important.

“Irwin Nash was documenting a history that wasn’t going to be known,” he said. “We were left out of the newspapers — the only time they would cover stories of a farmworker is if someone’s house burned down or something.”

Martinez went on to college and taught high school social studies in Pasco for 31 years.

About 45 of Nash’s photos are on display in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the WSU Pullman campus. Turner-Rahman said she’d like the exhibit to travel to the Yakima Valley, Tri-Cities and Wenatchee when it closes at WSU in March.

Freddy Jimenez, a WSU student, made arrangements to tour the exhibit with fellow members of the Crimson Group, an advocacy group for undocumented students.

“Many of our members grew up in the fields like I did,” he said. “Many of our members’ parents still work in the fields. Seeing the exhibit will allow us to connect to our past.”

Exhibit and event information:

An interview with Irwin Nash

Photographer Irwin Nash explained his compulsion to create this extraordinary body of work when reached by phone recently at his Seattle residence.

“I had been interested in this kind of documentary work, and I’ve had a camera with me since I was 12 years old. I spent a good deal of time looking over the WPA (Works Progress Administration) work done in the ‘30s and other documentary photography, European and American, and so, I developed a feeling for it.

“I don’t know exactly how this work began, but I’ve met people who’ve gone through a vicious stream, and I’ve read about it. I remember when the Japanese were taken to the concentration camps in America. And somehow, as awareness in reaction to a lot of human pain, it caused me to make the photographs. I was conscious of it, and I didn’t like what was happening. The only way to do anything about it if you’re not super wealthy is to use what tools you have, right? Or in my case, make photographs, which is what I did.

“An interesting process takes place when you’re in a situation with the camera. It’s almost unconscious. But something in the situation triggers a response in oneself. And when you’re tuned to that, where you can sort of feel it, you just trip your shutter reflexively. And then when you process the work, you look at what you were doing. This was all done manually, no computers, no digital devices, nothing. And, after you’ve taken the images, sometimes you get a feeling in the development process, looking at a single print that comes up, and it triggers the same kind of emotion you felt when you took the picture. You know when you’ve captured it, and it’s cool.

“I was inspired by the photographic geniuses who I worshipped, whose work I looked at a lot, and read about the technical background of what they were doing. But what colored my work was the way these people could see their subjects. The difference in those photographs is the kind of human being behind the camera.

“The question is in the work you are doing. Are you taking it for a record, or are you looking at it in the way that it is some kind of unconscious communication begun, that you are able to somehow use the camera to reflect upon the moment? I looked at those kinds of photographic works that I thought were sensitive and very well done, and I read about what these people did. What counts is the nature of the interaction between the photographer and the situation, not the equipment. If you’re lucky, you’re hoping you found it when you click the shutter.

“It all boils down to a kind of unconscious communication that you take advantage of a with a camera. The camera is a tool. It’s the depth and degree within the image that’s really interesting, and that’s what differentiates a photograph to me as a piece of art rather than simply a record.

“It’s the viewer who interacts with the photographs, and what they personally have absorbed experientially. Consciously and unconsciously, it determines what they see. How they feel about the work, no one else can determine. It is unique to each viewer.”

— Interview by Debby Stinson, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU

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