Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams at Skirball

Paul Mori January 26, 2016 0
Ansel Adams, School Children, 1943. Gelatin silver print (printed 1984). Private collection; courtesy of Photographic Traveling Exhibitions.

Ansel Adams, School Children, 1943. Gelatin silver print (printed 1984). Private collection; courtesy of Photographic Traveling Exhibitions.

Even if you think you know Ansel Adams’ Manzanar photographs, there are still new wonders and surprises in the exhibit Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams at the Skirball Cultural Center Museum in Los Angeles. Not only is the presentation of these well-known Adams photographs fresh and engaging, but also these 50 “Born Free and Equal” prints are expanded with a variety of other photographs by other prominent photographers, including letters, graphics, video, and rarely seen artifacts that together tell the story of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans brilliantly.

Adams had already established a wide reputation for his landscape photographs of Yosemite and other parts of the west, when another subject drew his attention in 1943—the plight of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the height of the war.

Adams visited Manazar, the incarceration camp near Bishop, CA, four times between 1943-1944. The resulting photographs were shown in a controversial wartime exhibition at New York’s MoMA, and 64 were included in his book, Born Free and Equal, in which Adams portrays those who were incarcerated as loyal Americans.

The entrance to the exhibition begins with two of Ansel Adams’ classic landscapes, which illustrate the artistic grandeur and serenity that Adams is so well known for. Visitors are then jolted into a hateful wartime fever with disturbing magazine cover art, mostly Collier’s, but also Time and Vanity Fair, of horrific caricatures of Japanese soldiers, some portrayed as disfigured monkeys.

Iconic photographs by Dorothea Lange of the evacuation and by others of the construction of the camps and of the Santa Anita Racetrack Assembly Center set the stage for the long hall-like gallery of the Ansel Adams photographs, as well as offer contrasting perspectives.

Subsequent galleries tell about the Fair Play movement, the infamous loyalty questions (27 and 28), with samples of actual forms on display, and life in the camps. Another sub gallery features Toyo Miyatake, who was incarcerated in Manzanar and whose work compares favorably with Lange’s and Adams.’

In addition, the many fascinating artifacts that go beyond just letters and documents, there are video displays (many from Seattle’s own Densho Project) and installed tablet computers which allow visitors to examine things deeper, such as the one that allows every page of Adam’s original Born Free and Equal to be viewed.

Other museums have used similar materials and methods to tell their stories, but what sets the Skirball’s Manzanar exhibition apart is that almost every photograph, display device, and object has a purpose which adds reality and depth to both the story and the photographs. And taken as whole, the installation has unity and a singular purpose.
For example, the inclusion of contemporary and ugly, sub-human Japanese caricatures becomes strikingly clear as one compares them with Adam’s humane portraits, which add understanding to his mission to put a human and American face on the internees. The contrast is stark and effective.

Likewise, an unassuming letter from Lange to Adams in a display case has significant purpose. Typed in the body of the letter is an excerpt of Lincoln’s 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, whose most memorable and sarcastic line is “all men were created equal, except negroes, foreigners and Catholics” which Adams later used in his book and is prominently displayed in exhibition.

But most significantly is the note in her own hand in which Lange’s admonishes Adams to “keep it (photographs) stripped to the bone of its meaning. Love D-” because she knew he would resist, as Adams could rarely escape his aesthetic sense.

Lange’s photographs serve a purpose of counterpoint in this exhibit, as they show raw emotional blood and despair; whereas, Adams’ Japanese are stoic, loyal, but domesticated, and served his intent. Her letter tells volumes of their relationship and their differences of style, but also their similarity of purpose.

Though it may be true that a “picture is worth a thousand words” the artifacts with several of the famous Adam portraits are worth far more. Some portraits are accompanied with original photo release forms, which reveal feelings about incarceration, such as the one with the haunting portrait of Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, in which she wrote “only after evacuation have I come to realize the false sense of security I enjoyed prior to the war.” In short, the people in the photographs come alive to speak again to a new generation.

There are other nice touches everywhere. A childhood portrait of Joyce Nakamura Okazaki is accompanied with a Densho video interview in which she retells an encounter with Adams many years after the photo shoot.

A year in the making, this exhibition presents materials never seen together and some artifacts, documents, and even some photographs that have never been seen publicly ever. Thanks to Skirball’s associate curator Linde Lehtinen’s hard work and brilliance, the exhibition is a revelation for the newly initiated and a marvel for those already familiar.

Ansel Adams was a specialist in landscapes, and his polished skills and his earthbound tripod-harnessed cameras were ill suited to portraiture. From an artistic aesthetic, these internment photos cannot compete with his landscape masterpieces, where the human element is altogether absent or inconsequential.

But with finesse and a deft touch, Skirball’s presentation will make you forget that you are looking at nothing other than Ansel Adams’ masterpieces of the soul of humanity.

‘Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams’ and ‘Citizen 13660: The Art of Mine Okubo’ run through February 21, 2016 at the Skirball Cultural Center Museum in Los Angeles, 14 miles north of LAX. These exhibitions are presented with association with the Japanese American National Museum and Photographic Traveling Exhibitions.

To view samples of the exhibition, including Aiko Hamaguchi’s portrait, go to:
http://www.skirball.org/exhibitions.

To view samples of the exhibition, including Aiko Hamaguchi’s portrait, go to:
http://www.skirball.org/exhibitions.

Also, for photos of the exhibition itself, go to:
http://photos.dailybreeze.com/2015/10/photos-ansel-adams-manzanar-photographs-at-the-skirball/#10.

To view Born Free and Equal on the Library of Congress website, go to:
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/manz/book.html

To view JANM’s collection of Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660 go to:
http://www.janm.org/collections/mine-okubo-collection/.

An online Riverside Community College’s Library gallery is here:
http://library.rcc.edu/riverside/okubo/gallery1.html.

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