Many have seen or heard about Ansel Adams photographs of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in incarceration camps… Fewer know the backstory.
By 1942, Ansel Adams has established a successful career as a commercial and landscape photographer. He’d traipsed about the American West, capturing in glorious black and white the now-famous images “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome,” and “Taos Pueblo.”
That same year, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast were forced from their homes and businesses and sent to live in one of 10 relocation centers scattered from Southern Idaho to California and east to Arkansas.
In 1943 and 1944, Adams turned his camera lens to the eastern foot of California’s Sierra Nevada where the Manzanar Relocation Center housed more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans. The resulting photographs first became an exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, then a book, “Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans.”
Now 50 images from that book are in Spokane as a part of “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams” at the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University.
The prints, all made from the original negatives housed in the Library of Congress, were originally exhibited in 1984 by the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the Fresno Met went bankrupt and was forced to sell off its permanent collection, the “Born Free” prints were purchased by Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus for the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Johnson has curated the current exhibit, which also includes photographs taken at Manzanar by the famed photographer Dorthea Lange, a first edition copy of Adams’ book, three drawings by artist Chiura Obata, who was held at the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah and other historical artifacts that put the exhibit in context.
The images feature something we’re not used to seeing in Adams’ famous landscapes: faces.
Paul Manoguerra, the Jundt’s curator and director, says even so, many still look like Ansel Adams photographs.
“There’s one called ‘Monument in Cemetery,’ ” Manoguerra said. “Even though its subject is the internment camp’s cemetery, it’s backdropped by an entire Western landscape. And there are a number of images where landscape, I would say, is still the subject matter. There’s plenty of portraits, there’s plenty of images of everyday life, but you can still see Adams’ interest in landscapes in the images of the exhibition.”
In going to photograph at Manzanar, Adams clearly was not taking an objective or journalistic viewpoint with him. The book’s title, “Born Free and Equal,” seems to indicate that Adams was troubled by the forced relocation of American citizens. In case there’s any doubt, he once wrote in a letter of his intent: “Through the pictures the reader will be introduced to perhaps twenty individuals … loyal American citizens who are anxious to get back into the stream of life and contribute to our victory.”
Its release in 1944 “drew some protests – and was even publicly burned – for being ‘disloyal,’ ” as the Seattle Times noted in a 2011 article about an exhibit of Adams’ Manzanar photographs on Bainbridge Island, Wash.
Still, as Manoguerra noted, Adams got criticism from both sides.
“His images, some people felt, were too benign. And others felt he was of course making too strong of a protest,” he said.
If he had to pick a personal favorite from the exhibition, Manoguerra said, he would point to “Birds on a Wire, evening,” from 1943. The subject matter is exactly that: birds on a telephone wire above the camp, with a telephone pole off to one side and the Sierra Nevada in the background.
“For me the metaphor of a bird on a wire, that liminal state of being unsettled, comes across in that image,” he said. “And then just off to the left he has a telephone pole, which has its own cruciform composition, and it’s all backdropped by the sun and some clouds and the mountains, and it’s just a beautiful image to me.”
One of the things that Adams does with the photographs and the text of the book, Manoguerra said, is work with the idea of what it means to be an American.
“I think a visitor to the exhibition very quickly picks up on that as an ongoing discussion,” he said. “And I think a subtext of that is the cleavage between the idea that all people are born equal, and the reality.”
The exhibition was organized to coincide with the book’s 50th anniversary by Photographic Traveling Exhibitions of Los Angeles. The Jundt marks the exhibition’s first stop, and it will tour the country for the next couple of years.