Ansel Adams, Pictures on Top of Phonograph, Yanemitsu home , 1943. Gelatin silver print (printed 1984). Private collection; courtesy of Photographic Traveling Exhibitions.
In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government set up ten camps during World War II to inter approximately 120,000 Japanese American citizens and legal residents without crime, trial, or conviction as a measure to protect “against espionage and sabotage.”
Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California’s Owens Valley, Manzanar is the most widely known of the camps, holding over 11,000 people at its peak. Over ninety percent of the incarcerees were from the Los Angeles area; many were farmers and fishermen. Forced to leave behind their homes, shops, and schools, the Japanese Americans were rounded up and put on trains that took them out to Manzanar, where they lived in poorly constructed barracks, behind five-strand barbed wire, and surrounded by eight perimeter watchtowers. The prisoners of Manzanar were then required to work in order to keep the camp self-sufficient.
In 1943, Ralph Merritt, director of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, invited photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams to document life at the camp. A year later, he published “Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese Americans” and exhibited the photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, NY. The work created significant controversy as the war was still being fought on two fronts and the animosity against the Japanese was being fed by mainstream media propaganda. The book has since long gone out of print and the work has faded from view, becoming a footnote in the archive of one of the country’s most highly regarded photographers.
November 21, 2015 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Manzanar. After the war ended, the government gave each person $25 and a one-way train or bus ticket. A significant number refused to leave the camp, because they had lost everything—their homes, their businesses, their possession—when they were forcibly relocated to Manzanar. Once again the United States government used force to remove people from the barracks, uprooting their lives a second time.
In commemoration of this dark chapter in American history, the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, presents “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams“ now through February 21, 2016. The exhibition features fifty photographs by Adams as well as work of contemporaries Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake, as well as examples of anti-Japanese propaganda produced by LIFE, Vanity Fair, and Time, and objects of everyday life.
Adams’ photographs includes landscapes, portraits, and documentary work, revealing the human face of false imprisonment, and a willingness to try to rise above the tragedies that had befallen them. It is perhaps these artifacts that are among the most touching: a senior prom program, school children’s essays, and the camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press. These efforts to lead “normal” life in such abject circumstances exemplify the triumph of the human spirit over systemic racism, persecution, and oppression at the hands of the United States government.
Adams wrote, “The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses, and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment.”
“Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams“ is running now through February 21, 2016.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.