|People, Place and Time
Michigan’s Copper Country Through the Lens of J.W. Nara, 1874-1934
J.W. Nara, Photographer
A Visual Record
History is a matter for memory and reminiscence. Rather than a series of documented events and facts, what we know of history often comes to us through the few clues retained in diaries, newspaper accounts, and public records. It was recorded that John William Nara was born in 1874 in the Tornio region of Finland. It is known that by 1892 he had established a photographic studio in Calumet, Michigan, in the heart of America’s most productive copper mining region. Where he learned his darkroom skills is unknown and, like millions of immigrant stories, the specific reasons for his move from Northern Finland to Northern Michigan are not clear. Few historical facts survive for most people’s lives; a birth certificate, a marriage license, perhaps an obituary tucked away on the inside pages of a defunct newspaper.
A Personal View
Yet unlike thousands of immigrants to the Keweenaw Peninsula, J.W. Nara’s life is also illustrated through the lens of his camera. Family is central to his personal journey, as evidenced in the many photographs of his wife, the former Mary Piehi, daughter of another Finnish immigrant. The two married in Calumet’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church in March 1904 and the couple’s only child, William Onni Nara, was born a year later. As the child of a professional photographer, the life of the young “Onni” is particularly well-documented. For most people, posed studio portraits are all that survive from the days before stop-motion photography; for the Nara family those “formal” images are augmented by a variety of snapshots of both indoor and outdoor family life.
A Common Experience
J.W. Nara’s lens also captured the people, place, and time he experienced in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The stories of copper mining and industry are given prominence as Nara's life spans the most productive decades in Michigan’s copper district. Urbanized downtown Calumet is documented at its zenith, surrounded by the shaft houses and smokestacks of the mighty Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. The lives of working folks are also captured – working underground in the mines, socializing at weekend picnics, and mourning the dead during Michigan’s bitter 1913 copper miners’ strike.
An Entrepreneurial Flair
Conversely, through Nara's lens we also experience the Keweenaw’s rural landscape. As his photography business grew, so did Nara’s other business interests in timber, farming, and home construction. Purchased tracts of land near Jacobsville, Michigan, became sources for massive log drives, with the cutover lands providing newly-arrived Finnish immigrants an opportunity to farm and raise families. J.W. Nara provides some of the only photographs of these early agricultural Keweenaw landscapes, along with some beautiful images of the area’s shorelines, lighthouses, and pastoral back roads.
An Economic Necessity
As a commercial photographer, J.W. Nara relied on studio portraits for an important part of his income. Thousands of his studio prints survive in private family collections, originally purchased by immigrants to Michigan's historic copper district and shipped to family and friends all over the world. In addition to traditional portraits and wedding sittings, Nara often showed a playful side in his studio work by staging vignettes, such as this bartender training a dog. Nara also took many portraits of his family and friends, including several self-portraits.