by David M. Roth
Who'd have guessed that Ansel Adams (1902-1984), America’s most beloved landscape photographer, would bring us the most politically charged exhibit of the year? Not I. Yet here we have Adams, along with a fellow traveler, the Canadian photographer Leonard Frank (1870-1944), forecasting America's present malaise with photos that reach out to us from across a span of seven and a half decades.
Both men during World War II made images of people illegally detained by their respective governments. Those detained were of Japanese descent. Some were citizens by virtue being born here, others were not. All bore the brunt of wartime hysteria. The photos, presented in Two Views: Photographs of Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank, connect powerfully to the present, engaging issues of racism, fear mongering, demagoguery, greed and the trampling of constitutional rights — calling to mind with eerie accuracy, threats to the rule of law now being posed by the Trump Administration. Organized by the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, the show, on view at the Crocker through May 14, commemorates the 75th anniversary of the internment, an event widely regarded by historians as among the most shameful in American history.
Despite being associated with environmentalism via the Sierra Club, Adams was not, at least at the beginning of his career, a supporter of progressive causes. During Great Depression, when his peers were embracing “socially engaged” photography, Adams opposed it, insisting that modernist depictions of landscape and natural forms would do more to help humanity than would pictures addressing social ills. His beliefs, like those of his friend Edward Weston, were unshakable except for a short a spell when he belonged to the communist-leaning Photo League. However when it became clear to him that membership would cost him economically, he left it. After World War II broke out and President Roosevelt ordered the forcible relocation of more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry to remote prison camps, Adams switched sides, or at least gave the impression of doing so.
Between October 1943 and July 1944, he made four trips to Manzanar, a desert encampment in the Owens Valley where 10,000 people were interned, their lives upended without benefit of due process, financial compensation or a shred of evidence linking them to the enemy. Most lost everything: farms, homes, businesses and communities. Adams arrived there at the invitation of the camp’s director, Ralph Merritt, who he knew through the Sierra Club. His images, viewable in full at the Library of Congress website, were intially published in book form as Born Free and Equal (1945) and later displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. A passage from the introduction (included in the exhibit) illustrates Adams’ thinking:
“I believe that the acrid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the people of Manzanar. I do not say all are conscious of this influence, but I am sure most have responded, in one way or another, to the resonances of their environment. From the harsh soil they have extracted fine crops; they have made gardens glow in the firebreaks and between the barracks. Out of the jostling, dusty confusion of the first bleak days in in raw barracks, they have modulated to a democratic internal society and a praiseworthy personal adjustment to conditions beyond their control. The huge vistas and the stern realities of sun and wind and space symbolize the immensity and opportunity of America – perhaps a vital reassurance following the experiences of enforced exodus.”
Thus, Adams’ pictures of people at work and at play, dusted off an old theme: frontier can-doism, telling, how, with hard work, even a persecuted minority group can triumph over bad odds. The images — of kids playing baseball and volleyball, churchgoers, shopkeepers, small manufacturing facitiles, families at leisure, students clutching schoolbooks, farmers cultivating
and harvesting abundant crops, and many full-frame close-ups of smiling kids — are a trove of Americana, banal and purposefully so. One in particular, of a boy holding huge heads of cabbage under each arm, stands out. Pictures like these could have been made in any small American town. Today they might be read as propaganda for the war effort – proof that the government’s actions, however unjust, inflicted no lasting harm.
Adams strategy, howver, was actually far more nuanced. He used the inherent drama of the landscape for maximum impact, showing the physical difficulties internees overcame to achieve the illusion of normalcy. Yet at certain junctures that illusion is punctured. The most powerful photo in the exhibit is titled Roy Takeno (editor) and group reading Manzanar paper (LA Times in front of office), taken in 1943. In it, three men huddle around copies of the Los Angeles times just outside the office of Manzanar’s newspaper. An overhead sign (Office of Reports Free Press) calls out its bureaucratic function in language that could have come straight out of Orwell. To the mens' immediate left, a line of telephone poles shrinks to a distant vanishing point, behind which looms Mount Williamson (elevation: 14,380 ft.) The ironies called forth by these conflicting elements couldn't be greater. Outside the frame, invisible to viewers, stand barbed-wire fences and guard towers. Curiously, Adams avoided picturing them, but he had no qualms about climbing up into them to record sweeping vistas. One (above) shows resplendent row crops against the same mountain backdrop. Others of the encampment shot from similarly high angles reinforce the view of a vibrant, self-sufficient community, trapped.
One can imagine Adams handling the situation differently. He could have, for example, attempted psychological profiles, pictures that showed suffering, as Dorothea Lange did. But the opportunities for doing were scarce. After Executive Order 9066 went into effect, the Japanese, reasoning that resistance would only damage their cause, looked upon internment as a loyalty test. They passed it, but there were consequences. Shame was intense and widespread, and it persisted for decades, visible only to those inside the community. This I learned while reporting on the last major anniversary of the internment, the 50th, in 1992. I'd been given the names of former internees who I’d hoped to interview, but only one, an elderly woman, agreed to speak with me. She'd written a book on the subject, and had henceforth dedicated her life to retelling her story to anyone who would listen. Few of her peers, she confided, could summon the same courage. No doubt, that affected the pictures Adams was able to make.
Outside the internment camps, other factors were in play that may have influenced Adams' thinking. Roosevelt's executive order, like Trump’s failed Muslim travel ban, opened a floodgate of racist sentiment. It was particularly virulent among farmers, a group that was overwhelmingly white. Statistics from this period show that their crop yields were consistently and markedly lower than those of their Japanese counterparts, and that led to resentments, which, after Pearl Harbor, boiled over into hate. Consider the statement below, quoted in the exhibit’s wall text, from Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association. “We’re charged with want to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown man. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over. If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don’t want them back after the war is over, either.” His comments appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, a middle-class staple that, at its peak, in the 1930s and 1940s, reached millions of homes every week.
Adams calibrated his approach wisely. By recasting the inhabitants of Manzanar as bona fide Americans, engaged in the same mundane activities as everyone else, Adams felt he could win over those who might malign them. Today this approach feels soft, accommodating. But there is little doubt about where Adams stood on the matter of the internment. In the preface to Born Free and Equal he quotes the Fourteenth Amendent, citing the due process and equal protection clauses, and he follows it with a searing quote from Abraham Lincoln: "When the Know-Nothings get control it will read 'all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty…where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
Leonard Frank’s side of the show, detailing Canada's internment of Japanese, stakes out similar positions. Frank was a commercial/industrial photographer, and his images betray that orientation. Clean, crisp and meticulously composed, they could have been plucked from a
government dossier. Unlike Adams who self-financed his efforts, Frank, at the time these shots were made, was under contract to the British Columbia Security Commission. The one photo of his that truly resonates is a high-angle shot of a men’s dormitory. It shows hundreds of empty beds crammed together in what looks to be sports arena. Here, again, wall texts provide critical context; they tell of hunger, sickness, overcrowding, loneliness and injustices every bit as bad as those meted out by our own government. In so doing they add depth to a story that bears repeating, now more than ever.
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“Two Views: Photographs of Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank” @ Crocker Art Museum through May 14, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.