Ansel Adams’s Manzanar photos “burn one’s eyes.”
Twice in 1943, Ansel Adams ventured to the desert of east central California, to focus his lens, not on some magnificent landscape, but on the desolate Manzanar War Relocation Center to document the life of the Japanese interred there. The result was the 1944 publication of Born Free and Equal, a 112-book that presented a selection of his Manzanar photos with text by Adams.
The MFA exhibition “Ansel Adams: In Our Time” thoughtfully and beautifully demonstrates Adams’ influence on the work of several 21st-century photographers. But the exhibition (which ended February 24) offers up only four small photos and a brief explanation about this little-known chapter in his life’s work. Adams’s Manzanar photos, which warrant further exploration, are strongly “of our time,” a time when once again “the other” is being demonized.
On February 19, 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, amid fears of espionage on American shores, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the deportation and incarceration of Japanese into “relocation camps.” From 1942 to 1945, approximately 117,000 people of Japanese descent living along the Pacific Coast were brought at gunpoint to ten isolated camps and interred, a process that was handled by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Nearly two-thirds of the deportees (only later were they called “internees”) were American citizens
A collection of 500 hastily built tar-paper barracks, the Manzanar War Relocation Center housed, behind barbed wire and gun towers, more than 10,000 prisoners—only a handful of them had come voluntarily. Manzanar, which means “apple orchard” in Spanish, has come to symbolize all of the camps.
When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, Adams, too old to enlist, wanted to participate in the war effort, but grew dissatisfied with his civil tasks. In the summer of 1943, a Sierra Club associate, Robert Merritt, director at Manzanar, came to Adams’s rescue and invited him to photograph the camp. “I cannot pay you a cent, Merritt told Adams, “but I can put you up and feed you.” Adams had found a timely subject — and a cause he embraced wholeheartedly.
Years later, when offering the collection to Library of Congress in 1965, Adams wrote, “The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering 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 environment. . . I think the Manzanar Collection is an important historical document.”
Departing from his signature style of landscape photography, Adams’s Manzanar photos portrayed scenes of family life; religious gatherings; town hall meetings; educational, recreational, and leisure activities; and people at work, including farmers; welders; nurses, doctors and lab technicians; teachers, butchers and garment workers, while also conveying the camp’s desolation and harshness.
One particularly un-Adams-esque photo, “Pictures and mementoes: Yonemitsu home” exemplifies his intentions. (Notably, it opens the “Documentary Photography” chapter of his autobiography.) The table-top still life — yes, an Adams still life! — encapsulates the life of the Yonemitsu family: a portrait of their son, a PFC in military uniform, up against a framed picture of a Caucasian Jesus, with three stamped letters from their son placed to the side, plus an ornamental squash and potted plant on a doily. In one intimate image, Adams captured the irony of the son fighting for the country that had imprisoned his parents.
U.S. Camera, an art and news photography magazine, which published Born Free and Equal: Photographs of the Loyal Japanese Americans at Manzanar Relocation Center (its full title), enlisted Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who opposed the internments, to provide the book’s forward. A top-selling book in San Francisco in 1944, the paperback was poorly distributed beyond the Bay Area. Adams biographer Mary Street Alinder cites Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation that the book “is one of the publications designed to temper one of our prejudices and I think it does it very successfully.” Yet the uneasy American public did not welcome the book. Copies were publicly burned in protest. Not until 2001 was the book republished.
Other photographers also recorded life at Manzanar, including Adams’s friend, the renowned Depression-era documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, whom the WRA hired to photograph the imprisonment process. The photographs of Adams, Lange, and two other WRA photographers are on permanent view at the museum at Manzanar, which became a National Historic Site in 1992.
In December 1944, two Supreme Court decisions signaled the end of the Japanese ordeal, which John Hersey termed “the horrendous black smudge on the American record of freedom,” in his introductory essay to Manzanar, a history of the camp told through Adams’ photos by constitutional lawyer John Armor and Associated Press news photo editor Peter Wright. On November 21, 1945, the WRA closed Manzanar, the sixth camp to be closed.
In response to the campaign for redress launched by Japanese Americans in 1978, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan finally signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized on behalf of the nation for the “grave injustice” done to persons of Japanese ancestry and provided financial redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee.
The Manzanar photos place Adams, however momentarily, in an august line of activist photographers who stood for social justice. Today, these photographs “whose clarity and beauty and truthfulness,” in Hersey’s words, “burn one’s eyes,” still wield a compassionate message.
As Armor and Wright’s Manzanar concludes, “We would do better to remember the lives and faces of the Nisei [American-born Japanese] in the camps as expressed in the photographs of Ansel Adams, to learn from these harsh events, and, having learned, never repeat them again.”
(“Ansel Adams in Our Times,” December 13, 2018 through February 24, 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, Massachusetts.)