BY PAUL MORI
The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles is now offering an extraordinary opportunity to view the rarely seen and nearly forgotten internment photographs of one of America’s most famous photographers, Ansel Adams. Curator Anne Hammond, photo historian and author of “Ansel Adams: Divine Performance,” has selected 50 original, hand-printed photographs from the photo collections of four museums into an exhibition by this great black-and-white master. Originally produced for the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the compilation has come to the mainland and will be on display through Feb. 18 in California. Because Adams donated his original negatives to the Library of Congress in 1965, and because original prints are few, this showing is a rare chance to see some of Adams’ most unusual works.
At the prompting of colleagues, Adams received permission from Manzanar camp director Ralph P. Merritt to nearly unlimited access to the camp in 1943-1945. The result is a collection largely made up of portrait photographs. Adams staged a showing in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and published a book of text and photographs entitled “Born Free and Equal.” In the largely hostile environment of World War II, American society was far from receptive and rejected both. Soon the book and these photographs were largely forgotten except by a few ardent advocates.
Adams (1902-1984) is among the most celebrated American black-and-white photographers because of his sweeping and dramatic landscape photographs of Yosemite National Park and America’s other natural landmark sites. His fine art and scientific method (the “Zone System”), a collection of techniques manipulating images in the darkroom, is considered one of the highest achievements in a pre-Photoshop world. Adams likened the realization of turning the negative into print as similar to taking a printed sheet of music and turning it into a musical performance. The Library of Congress’ Web site provides an opportunity to see the Manzanar collection online, and to see such side-by-side differences between Adams’ raw negatives and finished prints.
JANM’s “Ansel Adams at Manzanar” exhibition has the museum’s usual quality level of presentation. Visitors enter the exhibition through the permanent gallery and are introduced in the anteroom with a rare copy of Adam’s original “Born Free and Equal” opened to the title page under glass. The two following gallery areas dedicated to special exhibitions have been painted in various shades of gray that invite the viewer to enter into a world of black-and-white. Temporary walls, inserted to accommodate the large number of photographs, feature cutouts that expand the otherwise confined space and echo the rectangular motif of the frame prints.
Adams’ skill in capturing the grandeur of the American West is clearly evident in the first landscape prints of the exhibit and in the many impressive landscape reproductions in “Born Free and Equal.” As meticulous as his science-based “Zone System” was, these images are the product of a careful, slow and reflective process. He very rarely cropped his negatives as he deliberated in finding the right composition before the precise, ideal and almost momentous event of taking the exposure. Artistic vision is present in everything he did. But how does a landscape photographer find his artist’s voice in trying to show the human side of a people interned unjustly? How could he capture the images of people, whose motions are even more spontaneous and fluid than the wind blowing in random directions? He was not a photojournalist. Did Adams transcend his characteristic mold?
Part of his motivation for this project was his colleagues, notably the photojournalist Dorothea Lange, whose own photographs of the internment are truly exceptional and a valued document of this unfortunate chapter of American history. A few years earlier, Lange’s photos of suffering Americans during the Great Depression literally moved a nation. Although many today do not know her name, some of our nation’s strongest memories and ideas about the Depression are a result of the images she captured. Adams was moved by her photographs, and the Manzanar project was born with Lange’s encouragement. But later, Lange grew impatient with Adams, feeling that he didn’t act quickly enough to the injustice and considering his response muted and not bold enough.
Lange saw and photographed the internment from the beginning. Coming into the world of the Japanese American internment rather late in the game, after people settled into the seemingly impossible, Adams’ eyes simply didn’t see the same tangible or spiritual world that Lange saw. The infamous camp scandals were then history, the growing pains and initial problems had been smoothed over, and the people had settled and improvised a more or less civilized existence thanks to mail-order catalogs and Japanese American ingenuity and acceptance.
Beyond the external circumstances, what Adams saw in the people was characteristically different. In Adams’ work there are striking portraits, both of children and mostly young adults, showing strength and optimism. Adams clearly gravitated to persons most like himself as subjects, including photographers (including the famous Toyo Miyatake and his family), scientists (Frank Hirosawa), artists and professionals. His photographs of the Nakamura children, nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, and Yuichi Hirata are classically and wonderfully done, but not stylistically identifiable as Ansel Adams photographs.
However, the most effective photographs are those in which landscape is intertwined with the human subject, or when the human image is only implied or secondary. Here, the true genius and personality of Adams soundly resonates in the images. One hallmark photo of the exhibition and in Adams’s original publication is “Kobayashi (North Field).” Adams has captured a moment of reflection as a young Nisei gazes into the vast landscape, away from the camera lens. We know not his thoughts, only that it is a private moment that we dare not disturb. But it is the power of the backdrop and Adams’ immense skill of empowering those images with the environment that makes this expression possible. A closer examination of the photo reveals Adams’ hallmark careful composition, with even the sky and clouds cooperating to form the long triangular shapes echoed in the hills, grass and land.
In the forward of “Born Free and Equal,” Adams wrote:
“I believe that the acrid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the people of Manzanar . . . This book in no way attempts a sociological analysis . . . [rather it] is conceived on a human, emotional basis, accenting the realities of the individual and his environment.”
For him, these people were as noble as the mountains above, and even without his written documentation, the photographs attest to that vision.
In the end, how do Adams’ photographs fare? Comparisons are inevitable, as visitors are required to travel through a myriad of internment camp photos in the permanent collection to reach the start of the exhibit. Those permanent collection photos, taken by Dorothea Lange, are far more illustrative of the harsh realities of the injustice and painful events of the imprisonment. Adams’ photos intentionally depict little of the extraordinary, as showing the dark side of the internment was not within his vision or purpose. For example, the portraits of families in their quarters (“The Toyo Miyatake Family,” “The Yonimitsu Family”) look largely “normal” — the rooms are clean, neat and well-appointed with personal effects. These photos were not to whitewash the injustices, but rather to show these detained people as normal, that is, as “American” as any American, and not aliens embracing a distant and foreign world and culture. His message was that the people inside the barbed wire were as “ordinary” as the people on the outside.
From a technical standpoint, few of the greats can match Adams’ technique and meticulous execution of photography. If taken alone, without the images of other photographers, Adams’ Manzanar photographs would give only a narrow perspective of the historical facts, and in no way do they summarize the Japanese American experience during World War II. But as the handiwork of America’s great photographer, the photographs of “Ansel Adams at Mazanar” are striking images of a time and place frozen in history — straight from the hand and eye of a great American artist.
For exhibit information, visit www.janm.org.