Reeling after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government decided to solve the “Japanese problem” by incarcerating 110,000 Japanese in 10 concentration camps.
They were farmers, fishermen, small business owners, two thirds of whom were native born American citizens, whole families of law abiding Japanese Americans uprooted and sent to relocations centers far inland, away from the California coast.
The exhibition, Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams at the Skirball Cultural Center opens with vivid examples of anti-Japanese propaganda, including cover art and articles from prominent publications such as Collier’s, LIFE, Time and Vanity Fair. The pre-evacuation period is observed in numerous photographs Dorothea Lange took for the War Relocation Authority in 1942, one year prior to Adams visit to Manzanar. Many of Lange’s poignant images were impounded for negatively portraying the government while documenting Japanese Americans being forcibly relocated leaving behind shops and schools, boarding crowded trains and encountering primitive living quarters at the camp.
The first of the camps to be established, Manzanar, is in Owens Valley approximately 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where summer temperature exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit , and winters dropping to into the 40 degree range.
In the fall of 1943 Ralph Merritt, director of the Manzanar War Relocation Center invited famed art and landscape photographer, Ansel Adams to chronicle daily life at the camp. Distressed that the lives of American citizens had been uprooted in such an unjust way, Adams accepted the invitation, and took the opportunity to capture on film the humanity of the detainees, and tell the story of this dark and disquieting period of American history.
Done in Adam’s signature dramatic black and white style, the photos are haunting and beautiful. Through his trained and observant lens, we see a people who have made the best of a terrible situation. We see farm workers in the field, students in a biology class, and a photograph of a framed photo on top of a phonograph showing a young Japanese man in uniform, serving in the United States military while his family is interred at Manzanar.
Many of the photographs are portraits; a handsome Corporal Jmmie Shohara his United States military uniform decorated with ribbons for good behavior pre-Pearl Harbor and Rifle and Pistol Citations, a smiling farmer, Richard Kobayashi with cabbages, young Louise Tami Nakamura, in her crisply ironed ruffled dress smiling and showing a missing front tooth. Other photographs depict individuals engaged in various activities such as baseball, Sunday school, a science lecture, working in a potato field, standing in line at a mess hall, a photo of the pleasure garden the Japanese created.
The images are a testament to the human spirit, to the pride of the Japanese people who accepted their fate and went on with life, building a vital community for themselves, not bowing down to defeat, injustice and falling into despair.
This exhibit is an important reminder of what can happen when fear and prejudice overshadows reason and humanity. We need to remember this tragic and historic time and make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
Concurrently, the Skirball presents Citizen 13660: The Art of Miné Okubo. Based on an illustrated memoir of the same name, this companion exhibition features the work of Japanese American artist Miné Okubo (1912–2001), who recorded her everyday struggles at two incarceration camps through poignant pen and ink drawings and incisive commentary. Citizen 13660: The Art of Miné Okubo is also presented in association with the Japanese American National Museum
Skirball Cultural Center
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA