Ansel Adams was already world-famous for his groundbreaking black-and-white photographs of the American West when he was invited by his friend Ralph Merritt to document the Manzanar War Relocation Center, a Japanese internment camp, where Merritt was director. It was a risky career move for a man so thoroughly established as a landscape photographer, but Adams was compelled to witness life there and make a record of it. Fifty of his photographs will be on display in the Photographic Traveling Exhibitions show, “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams,” which is at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles from Oct. 8 to Feb. 21.
During World War II, more than 110,000 Japanese people and Japanese Americans were detained in 10 camps along the West Coast. More than 11,000 people, the majority of whom were American citizens from the Los Angeles area, were detained at California’s Manzanar between 1942 and 1945. Adams made a series of trips there between 1943 and 1944.
“He felt this was an injustice, and he actually ended up conducting interviews with people in the camp, asking people about their experiences, how they felt prior to incarceration, whether they’d experienced racial prejudice before the war. He tried to capture not only what was happening in the camps visually, but he wanted to know who these people were. He wanted to emphasize their loyalty as American citizens,” said Linde B. Lehtinen, Skirball’s assistant curator.
Adams’ photos depict everyday life at Manzanar. They include portraits of internees and landscapes of the camp. They take viewers inside the barracks and show recreational activities including baseball and gardening. While Adams had broad access to the camp, he was not allowed to photograph barbed wire or guard towers, and all of his photos had to be approved by the War Relocation Authority.
Adams was not the first person to document Manzanar. The legendary documentary photographer Dorothea Lange was there a year earlier on a commission from the United States government. The Japanese-born American photographer Toyo Miyatake, who was detained at Manzanar, also took photographs during his time there. Miyatake showed Adams around during his visits, and Adams photographed him and his family.
Adams published these photographs in a book, Born Free and Equal, in 1944, and the photographs were also displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. At the height of anti-Japanese sentiment in wartime America, Adams’ book was controversial. “In some cases it was either pulled from the bookstores, or in some extreme cases it was burned. There were strong feelings that Adams himself was being a disloyal American by showing this aspect of life,” Lehtinen said.
Lange, who had advised Adams during his time at Manzanar, also criticized his final product. “They had what you can call a friendly set of differences. They tried to help each other, but she found he didn’t put enough of the pathos, the raw quality of what was happening in the camps in terms of the difficulties they were facing, the everyday environment that was a part of their everyday struggle,” she said.
While that point is still debated today, Adams’ work undoubtedly succeeds as a record of the resiliency of the internees. “They made it work despite the utter injustice of the situation. That’s part of what Merritt and Adams wanted to tap into, to show the strength of this community,” Lehtinen said.