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This historic Michigan photographer’s work is a window into…

This historic Michigan photographer’s work is a window into…


Photos courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives

This photo is titled “Bartender Training Dog.” The photo was shot in J.W. Nara’s studio, and is one of many in Nara’s collection featuring people posing with their pups.

By Emily Bingham | [email protected]

The subject matter in the J.W. Nara collection is as diverse as it is colorful: a pair of women in jaunty hats riding bicycles down a dirt road; shirtless miners in a mine shaft with flaming oil lamps attached to their helmets; a hunting camp; a group of snowshoers; a stump-riddled field left barren after the loggers had gone.

John William Nara, a Finnish-born immigrant who came to Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula in the late 1800’s, is remembered as the Copper Country’s first notable commercial photographer. The body of work he left behind might seem disparate by today’s niche-photography standards — after all, he shot everything from wedding portraits to landscapes to news events — but it is unified by the fact that it is so quintessentially “U.P.”

Nara died in 1934, and now the bulk of his photographs lives on in the archives at Michigan Technological University, where it gives us a peek into life in the Keweenaw a century ago — a specific chapter of Michigan history without much photographic documentation otherwise.

“His work is significant because it provides a strong visual record of a time that’s mostly only documented textually, or through memorabilia passed down through families,” says Lindsay Hiltunen, archivist with MTU’s University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections. “A lot of the things that survived are corporate records from mining companies, or local business records, like an accounting ledger. But Nara was actually able to give us a graphic record to create more context, so you can actually see into the past.”

Nara’s photography business was based in Calumet, then a thriving town in the heart of the U.P.’s mining country. He was known, first and foremost, for his lovely studio portraits, through which we can glean that he had a sense of humor — and an abiding affection for dogs, which show up frequently in his work.

“He would take these images of dogs and their keepers sometimes posed in funny manners,” Hiltunen says. “The way that he would situate a subject transcends the page — he was creating something whimsical for the sheer delight of it, not just ‘we have to do this for some commercial purpose.’”

Nara did well for himself with his portrait work, which allowed him to eventually purchase the equipment necessary for documenting people, places and events outside the studio. His fieldwork includes glimpses into the lives lived by miners, loggers, and farmers, into everyday occurrences in Copper Country communities, and even into current events, like the bitter mining strikes of 1913 and 1914, which gained so much notoriety that the Michigan National Guard was sent in.

Nara’s success also afforded him opportunities to dabble in other industries, like land ownership and logging, an experience that led him to become one of the earliest advocates for selective timbering and forest conservation — “pretty groundbreaking at the time,” Hiltunen says.

For a man who left us such a great window into the time and place where he lived, Nara didn’t leave behind many detailed clues about himself. It isn’t known how or why he came to the Keweenaw in the first place, nor where he learned photography. But his photos do tell us he lived well, and that he loved photographing his family: his wife, Mary, and his son, William, nicknamed Onni.

“Most families weren’t able to have anything beyond a few formal studio photographs, so you get these really interesting glimpses into how Nara and his wife and his son lived: a good life in the great outdoors of the U.P.,” Hiltunen says.

What follows is a selection of Nara’s photographs, including a range of subjects. The J.W. Nara collection is free and open to the public at the MTU Archives; more information can be found at nara.lib.mtu.edu.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives

A self-portrait, perhaps using mirrors, of J.W. Nara.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives

A self-portrait of Nara hamming it up for the camera.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives

Nara, second from left, in roughly 1898 at Island Lake: A military training camp near Brighton, Mich., for troops headed to the Spanish-American War. According to the archival notes, the Finnish-born Nara earned U.S. citizenship this way.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives

One of Nara’s business cards, reading “J.W. Nara Photographer, Calumet, Mich.” with Finnish in the bottom left corner.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Technological University Archives

An exterior view of Nara’s studio. According to the archive notes for this photo, an advertisement on the building proclaims “Everything in Photography – Furnished,” while a sign below appears to be written in Finnish. A man carrying a bag — perhaps Nara — stands outside, accompanied by a dog similar…

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