I’d like to make people aware of a very remarkable collection of photographs at the Library of Congress taken by Ansel Adams in 1943 of the American Citizens of Japanese descent, who were interned in the Manzanar Relocation Center. This work of which Figure 1 is a beautiful example represent a major departure for Ansel Adams from his traditional Monumental Landscape work, being instead intensely intimate portraits and scenes of camp life. It is strikingly interesting how over the last few years the diversity and breadth of Adam’s work is slowly becoming increasing apparent.
These works were originally published in 1944 by US Camera with text by Adams in a book entitled “Born Free and Equal.” and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. The photographs were donated to the Library of Congress by Adams in 1966.
Ansel Adams’ photographs at Manzanar were the result of an invitation by his friend Ralph Merritt, who had recently been appointed camp director. It is significant that two other contemporary photographers documented Manzanar. The first was Dorothea Lange, then a staff photographer for the War Relocation Authority. Lange visited all eleven Japanese-American internment camps. The third photographer was internee Toyo Miyatake. Miyatake had been a studio photographer in Los Angeles. His first photographs were taken with and improvised camera that he built with smuggled parts. His activities were discovered, but Merritt allowed him to continue work and even to have his studio equipment shipped to the camp. Initially he would set up the photograph, but only a camp guard was allowed to press and release the shutter. This, of course, speaks volumes about the injustices being meted out to loyal American citizens at Manzanar.
In donating these beautiful images and important historical documentation to the Library of Congress 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 dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment…All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.”