Michael W. Childers

This Day of Remembrance – Ansel Adams at Manzanar

By Mike Childers

At Manzanar, in the presence of the ancient mountains, another tragic episode of history struggles for solution. Because of evacuation enforced by military order all along the coast, homes were abandoned, and trades and enterprises relinquished. Scenes of pleasant childhood draw into unreal distance; the future is only a hope, no longer an assurance. Friends and family are split and scattered with strange divergences of loyalties, beliefs and decisions.  

  • Ansel Adams, Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans, 1944

3a47438rI have been thinking a lot about Ansel Adams lately. There are few who have had a greater influence on how we perceive our national parks than the famous photographer. Adams’s images of the Yosemite Valley, Grand Tetons, and Canyon de Chelly remain among the most recognized photographs of the twentieth century, and they continue to shape our expectations that National Parks are places of wild, untrammeled beauty. Adams was known for not including any people in his photographs, portraying a false narrative that the parks were actually untrammeled by man. Adams quibbled with criticisms that he ignored people altogether in his photographs, writing in 1979, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” A romantic vision indeed.

00257vA notable exception to Adams’s depiction of nature sans humankind is his Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. Published in 1944, the 112-page book includes dozens of portraits of American citizens interned at the Manzanar Internment Camp. It is a fascinating book full of portraits, brief glimpses into life within the camp, and yes, a few stunning landscapes. What makes the book notable is its publication in the final year of the war and its attempt to humanize a number of Americans largely invisible, or even hated, by the rest of the nation.

Following Highway 395, through the spectacle of rolling desolate hills, jagged and ancient rocks, chaotic areas of black lava, grey-white alkali lake-beds, blue acres of impounded water, clumps of willow and cottonwood and the slender lines of Lombardy poplars – all interspersing the bronze sage-covered plain and underlying the towering mountains on either hand – we come to the soldier-guarded gates of Manzanar and enter a little city, well-governed ad alive, mirroring in small scale an American metropolis.

Fear swept across the country in the days and weeks following the Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Those living on the West Coast felt particularly vulnerable to another assault from the Pacific, leading to widespread panic and deepening racial hatred. Seeking to calm the nation’s qualms and provide “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 ordering the forced relocation of some 125,000 Japanese-American citizens living in California, Oregon, and Washington to internment camps scattered across the rural West.

00428vOf those interned, nearly two thirds were naturalized American citizens. They were business owners, farmers, fishermen, college students, husbands, wives, and brothers and sisters. And like their fellow citizens, they had meet the news of the attack Hawaii with shock and fear as their nation was suddenly thrust into war. Yet, as fear turned to hysteria, the American public looked for ready scapegoats to blame for the war. Like many recent immigrants, most Japanese-American lived in small self-contained communities in western metropolitan areas. Many living in such “Little Tokyo’s” were naturalized citizens. They have never known any country but the United States. This proved no defense to the boiling hatred that had seized the country, and like generations of migrants before them, western communities of Japanese-American became targets of nativist politics.

The responsibility of the Military was tremendous; the spectacular victories of Japan, the crippling of our fleet at Pearl Harbor, the possibility of invasion of our west coast – all were facts of tragic import, and ta the time were considered more than ample justification of the mass exodus. In addition, there was the threat of public retaliation against the Japanese-American population. We may feel that racial antagonisms fanned the flame of decision that political pressures were of no little consequence in supporting the military action. In the light of retrospection and true evaluation the evacuation may have been unnecessary, but the fact remains that we, as a nation, were in the most potentially precarious moment of our history – stunned, seriously hurt, unorganized for actual war. 

00006rAdams spent most of the war fretting about how to best contribute in some meaningful way to the war effort. The government had no real need for a landscape photographer, and Adams refused to be just a sergeant in the army. He had hoped briefly that he would work for his friend Edward Steichen in the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, but the job never materialized. At a loss as to what to do, Adams expressed his frustrations to fellow Sierra Club member Ralph Merritt. Recently appointed as the director of Manzanar, Merritt asked if Adams would be interested in visiting the camp and documenting the amazing resilience of those being held there. Adams agreed, and the two arranged his visit to the internment camp.

Adams was not the first to photograph those interned at Manzanar. Known for her work during the Depression, Dorothea Lange had been hired by the military to make a photographic record of the forced evacuation and relocation of Japanese-Americans to Manzanar. But after viewing her depictions of American citizens being forced to stay in old horse stables before being loaded into buses, with nothing more than a small suitcase of belongings, by soldiers, the government impounded her images. In addition, Japanese immigrant Toyo Miyatake was among those interned at Manzanar. An award winning photographer, Miyatake smuggled in a camera lens into the camp, using it to build a rudimentary camera in which to clandestinely document life within the camp.

00370vUnlike Lange and Miyatake, Adams was less willing to portray the plight of those imprisoned at Manzanar as desperate. Rather, he saw the internee’s story as one of resiliency and optimism. Discussing Manzanar years later, Adams recalled how positive internees were. “They’d rejected the tragedy because they couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. It was a troubling interpretation of the camp. While he certainly called the imprisonment of hundreds of men, women and children based solely on their race abhorrent, Adams’ chief story was resilience in the face of injustice and the continuing opportunity America offered.

How could Adams come away from his time with those families with such a story? My first impression on reading Adams’s account was to agree with each of those accusations. But on reflection, I am not so sure that it is so simple. As Dorothea Lange later commented, Adams’s treatment of the camp was “far for him to go.” While that was not nearly far enough for her, to argue that Adams’s work ignored the injustice of internment is equally untrue. In curating the images for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, Adams had included a quote from the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing due process of law to all citizens in criticism of the government’s violation of the Constitution. The federal government censured the panel, arguing it failed to accurately depict the relocation program.

00424vYet, reading through Born Free and Equal you cannot help but remark on how the portraits and candid shots tell a starkly different story than that told by those who endured living in communal barracks through blazing hot summers and freezing winters, all while under the armed gaze of the U.S military. Manzanar was not a relocation camp it was a prison camp.

As we go about Manzanar meeting some of the people and observing how they live, work, and play, we are impressed with their solidity of character, the external cheerfulness, and their cleanliness. I have not been aware of any abnormal psychological attitudes, such as one might expect to find in a group, which has suffered such severe alternations of its normal life. There is no outward evidence of the “refugee” spirit, no expressed feeling of an endured temporary existence under barracks-life conditions . . . I do not recall one sullen face in Manzanar. Many, of course, are bitter, but that bitterness is expressed in terms of argument and discussion – not in terms of an unpleasant reaction to life.

00431vI first visited Manzanar National Historic Site in summer of 2004. The National Park Service had just opened its interpretation center in what had been the camp’s high school. The newly constructed displays told the history of the camp, as well as the surrounding Owens Valley. Nothing I did not expect to see in a National Park museum. But towards the back of the gymnasium that served as the main gallery stood a large display condemning all attacks on civil liberties, including the recently passed Patriot Act. Astonished at the brazen, but correct, connection between the Patriot Act and the internment of American citizens sixty years earlier, I walked out the back door into the heat of the day. There, I stood staring at the parched landscape full of scrub oak and sagebrush that had once been home to thousands of prisoners of war. This, I thought, is what a national monument should be: a place of remembrance, conversation, and reflection on our history, our land, and who we as a nation want to be.

00374vI believe Adams came away from Manzanar with similar insights. A clear critic of government’s violation of the internee’s civil liberties at a time when open racial hatred and fear of imminent attack kept most American’s from opposing the interning of thousands of citizens, Adams did speak out. But I also believe that his limitations as a landscape photographer and wilderness advocate were the same in his depiction of life at Manzanar. He was a romantic. Adams did not view the world in the black and white of his photographs. Instead, he often ignored reality as it was in favor of an idealistic version that removed him from the frame. It is a powerful vision, one worth reflecting upon on this Day of Remembrance commemorating those imprisoned because of their ancestry by a fearful nation unwilling to do the hard work of democracy. In a time of building of walls and banning of Muslims, it is essential to remember Manzanar and the cost of casting our fears and bigotries onto others who bear those costs.

With those thoughts, I will let Ansel have the last words.

Who is to rise among us capable of dynamically interpreting democracy to those who profess it but do not truly practice is? We have the chance now—and never has a better change been offered us—to establish the true American structure of life. The treatment of the Japanese-Americans will be a symbol of out treatment of all minorities.




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