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Stanford Libraries: The life and activism of photographer David Bacon

November 2, 2020

Manuel Ortiz held out his hands to the camera, revealing decades of toil — callouses, scars and creases embedded with soil that multiple hand washings wouldn’t scrub clean. Photographer David Bacon first saw him in 2015 as he pushed a shopping cart full of cans and bottles through an alley in Yakima, Washington. Ortiz first came to the United States in the 1950s under the Bracero program and continued working the agricultural fields of California and Washington for six decades.

But when he met Bacon, Ortiz was in his mid-80s and too old to work in fields, so he redeemed cans and bottles to cobble together enough money for rent and food. With a single photo in Bacon’s signature style — an uncropped black and white image set in a hard black border marking the edge of the full frame — he captured decades of hard labor that provided food for millions, but more importantly he reveals the continued strength Ortiz’s hands hold to survive in a society that had continually undervalued his work.

“It’s a powerful image,” said Roberto Trujillo, associate university librarian and director of Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections. “An elderly man’s hands, just his powerful hand, scarred and worn from working in the fields day in and day out for probably all his adult life.”

The photograph of Ortiz, entitled “The hands of Manuel Ortiz show a life of work,” is one of 200,000 images spanning three decades shot by Bacon that are now housed in Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections, which acquired Bacon’s archive in the winter of 2019. The collection was launched this fall under the exhibit title Work & Social Justice: the David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford, after more than a year of cataloging the images, original film negatives, color transparencies and digital files.

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