Ansel Adams

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Probably the most famous American photographer of all time is Ansel Adams, whose black and white landscape photos of the American West are still seen all over the United States today in calendars, posters, and books.  But most people do not know that, in 1943, Adams took hundreds of photographs of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California and the Japanese-Americans interned there during World War II.  He published the photographs in a book called “Born Free And Equal:  The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans” in 1944 and displayed his images at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  


At the height of World War II, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the forced relocation of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were native-born American citizens. The rest had been prevented from becoming citizens by federal law.  Over 110,000 were imprisoned in the ten concentration camps located far inland and away from the coast. Manzanar was the first of the ten camps to be established.  Over 90% of the prisoners were from the Los Angeles area, with the rest coming from Stockton, California; and Bainbridge Island, Washington. Many were farmers and fishermen. Manzanar held 10,046 prisoners at its peak, and a total of 11,070 people were imprisoned there.


The camp site was situated on 6,200 acres at Manzanar, leased from the City of Los Angeles, with the developed portion covering approximately 540 acres. The residential area was about one square mile and consisted of 36 blocks of hastily constructed, 20-foot by 100-foot tarpaper barracks, with each family living in a single 20-foot by 25-foot “apartment” in the barracks. These apartments consisted of partitions with no ceilings, and therefore no privacy. Lack of privacy was a major problem for the prisoners, especially since the camp had communal men’s and women’s bathrooms.


Adams’ project began when his friend, Ralph Merritt, who was the camp director, invited him to visit and photograph life at the camp.  The project was highly controversial, owing to both the ongoing war and the animosity against Japan, especially in the American West.  He was not the first to photograph the camp; Dorothea Lange, another influential depression-era photographer and journalist, photographed the early days of the camp, when conditions were especially harsh and inhumane.  Merritt also discovered that Toyo Miyatake, a Japanese-American photographer, had smuggled a camera into the facility and had been secretly photographing it; however, instead of seizing the equipment and the photos, Merritt decided to fund his project, supply him with more equipment, and eventually introduce him to Adams.  


On November 21, 1945, the Government closed Manzanar, the sixth camp to be closed. Although the prisoners had been brought to the Owens Valley by the United States Government, they had to leave the camp and travel to their next destinations on their own. The Government gave each person $25 ($323 today), one-way train or bus fare, and meals to those who had less than $600 ($7,746 today). While many left the camp voluntarily, a significant number refused to leave because they had no place to go after having lost everything when they were forcibly uprooted and removed from their homes.


Today, you can visit Adams' collection of photographs online at the Library of Congress.  When he donated his collection to the Library of Congress in 1965, Adams wrote:  "The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment.”