Ansel Adams at Manzanar

Every once in a while you come across something by an artist which transforms your perspective. Ansel Adams is known as an American landscape photographer, so it’s no surprise that in mid-1943 he traveled to Owens Valley in California to photograph the Sierra Nevadas. But Adams was in the valley for another reason: to document conditions at the Manzanar internment camp. One of several noted photographers who took pictures there (both Dorothea Lange and Clem Albers visited the camp, while incarceree Toyo Miyatake took photographs both clandestinely and openly), Adams published a selection of his images in 1944 as the book Born Free and Equal.

Born Free and Equal is an interesting book, especially since Adams never quite manages to decide what he really thinks about the internment. The tone oscillates wildly from page to page: it starts with the text of the Fourteenth Amendment (“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”), then declares the internment justifiable, if not just, and manages to conclude by decrying prejudice and intolerance.

If the book is all over the map, the pictures are coolly consistent. Modern critics have observed that Adams’ portraits focus on smiling faces, diligent workers, and clean families. His pictures normalize Manzanar rather than condemning it, presenting the Japanese-Americans there as good, uncomplaining Americans (rioting in 1942 is presented as the work of disloyal individuals, now further segregated). The quotes from the residents themselves, though, carry a tone of stoic patriotism with an undercurrent of awareness of an injustice whose name can not be spoken (at least by them, though Adams can complain on their behalf): as one puts it, “Only after evacuation have I come to realize the false sense of security I enjoyed prior to the war.”

Adams donated the negatives and prints from his project to the Library of Congress in 1965–8, and the Library has digitized them and made them available, along with both Born Free and Equal and some excellent notes on the digitization and metadata.

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