California-based photographer Rick Nahmias was researching famed TV journalist Edward R. Murrow when he came upon Harvest of Shame, Murrow's 1960s documentary about the dreadful living conditions of farm workers. The film inspired Nahmias to revisit the topic, and the results are the dozens of wonderful photos that make up The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers, now at the Museo de las Américas (861 Santa Fe Drive, 303-571-4401.)
The exhibit debuted at California's Fullerton Museum, and it was Nahmias himself who approached the Museo about hosting it in Denver. The gallery has supplemented the show with a salute to activist Cesar Chavez, a champion of workers' rights and a guiding light of the United Farm Workers union. The small display is hung on the short walls that run down the middle of the galleries up front, and it includes some great old posters promoting the cause.
The Chavez section, which visitors will first encounter just beyond the entry, is the perfect setup for The Migrant Project, because the two share the same political content. Nahmias, like Chavez and, come to think about it, Murrow, is interested in highlighting the struggles of migrant workers. But instead of unionizing or doing TV shows, Nahmias uses poetically black-and-white photography in lyrical selenium prints.
Nahmias's approach is to capture the picturesque and bucolic quality of rural life while raising issues such as underpayment of wages, overcrowding and the rigors of farming. All of the photos were taken in 2002 and 2003 in Califormia, where Nahmias lives.
The handsome prints have black blurry edges and feature softly focused details in washed-out tones. The compositions have a romantic feeling and recall traditional figure and landscape paintings, as in 2002's "The Grape Worker" (above). It's clear that Nahmias loves his subjects; he aims to ennoble them through his depictions. He has a brilliant sense for composition, and his use of the reflected effects of natural light is quite impressive.
The Museo's thought-provoking Migrant Project closes on June 12.
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