Biographical / Historical
Primarily known as a freelance photographer and photojournalist, Leonard Nadel (1916-1990) was born in Harlem, New York to Austro-Hungarian immigrant parents. He attended the City College of New York. Entering the Army during World War II, he trained at the Army Signal Corps Photographic Center. During the war he served in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines. After the war he returned to New York and received his master's degree in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. He moved to Los Angeles, California and studied at the Art Center College of Design.
In Los Angeles, Nadel photographed both the Pueblo del Rio and Aliso Village housing projects. He was also hired by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) to document living conditions in the city's slums and their new post-World War II housing projects. Nadel continued his employment with HACLA until 1953, when he resigned because his HACLA colleague, Frank Wilkinson, was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and forced to resign.
Between 1953 and 1980 Nadel worked as a freelance photographer for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Harvester News, Life, Business Week, and other major publications. His work with the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Republic resulted in his work documenting the bracero program. These photographs were taken by Leonard Nadel in connection with a survey of braceros done by Ernesto Galarza for the Fund for the Republic in 1956 in support of the publication, Strangers in Our Fields. During World War II, the United States and Mexico entered an agreement to alleviate the US labor shortage created by the war by importing Mexican workers. This arrangement outlasted the end of the war and by the time of Nadel's photographs nearly half a million Mexican contract workers, in the common vernacular of the time known as "drybacks," were legally imported to the United States annually working on short term labor contracts predominately in agriculture. These workers were also known as braceros, in Spanish translated as "manual laborer".
Nadel wrote of his work with the braceros, "I covered 5,000 miles during a circuit that took me from California to Mexico to Texas. It would have been easy enough just to turn over to the Fund the finished collection of photographs from the 2,000 images I took in attempting to accurately document the story of Strangers in Our Fields. But the conditions I had witnessed stirred me deeply. I felt that it was as much my responsibility to help 'sell' the picture story."
Nadel's photographs were the subject of the National Museum of American History (NMAH) exhibition, "Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964" in 2009-2010. Nadel's photographs are featured in NMAH's "America on the Move" exhibit. This quote from the "America on the Move" exhibition website gives the history of the photographs as well as the bracero program.
"In 1956, Leonard Nadel was hired by the Fund for the Republic, an anti-McCarthy liberal spin off of the Ford Foundation, to document the Bracero Program. In the 1990s, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Nadel images. The collection contains 64 captioned photographic prints and 1730 original 35mm negatives (with corresponding contact sheets). The images document life in Mexico, men's experiences of crossing the border, and work and life in the US.
"The Bracero Program came into existence in 1942. Growers argued that labor shortages in the United States resulting from World War II required the recruitment of Mexican nationals. Mexico saw the program as a contribution to the war effort. Although the program began as a temporary war measure, it became a fixture of agricultural work landscape until it was finally terminated in 1964.
"Over the course of its lifetime, the Bracero Program became the largest and most significant U.S. labor guest worker program of the 20th century. In all, over 4.5 million contracts were awarded through the twenty-two years of the program. Despite the well-intentioned contracts, the program did not escape controversy. Some point out the widespread abuses of many of the contract's protective provisions and the violation of the legal rights and civil liberties of the braceros while others describe the program as an opportunity for Mexican nationals to make a living and improve the conditions of their families. Regardless of one's opinion of the program, it had a profound effect on Mexican American settlement patterns in the U.S. and numerous Latino families have ancestors who were involved in the Bracero Program."
Nadel married Los Angeles Times staff writer Evelyn De Wolfe in August 1961. She was Brazilian by birth and after their marriage she resigned from the Times and collaborated with Nadel on many projects that covered both national and international subjects. Nadel died in 1990.