Jesse’s book review, Manzanar by Ansel Adams
Jesse tackles one of the great legends of photography in this review, by reviewing a book that has a very strong connection for the Japanese. This is a fascinating and raw photographic essay that is often overlooked.
“On the day of departure, people found themselves herded into groups of about 500, mostly at railroad and bus stations. They wore numbered tags and carried hand baggage containing the posses they could grab, not knowing where they were going…Uniformed guards carrying weapons patrolled the lines…as we were bathed in horse showers”
-A womans later testimony
This description is characteristic of the Nazi round up of Jews in the 1930s, but instead is the description of the round up of Japanese Americans following Executive Order 9066 that for the exclusion and internment of all Japanese Americans living on the west coast during World War II in 1942. This would go down as a national embarrassment after wartime sentiments were cooled complete with Public law 100-383 going into place to ensure no such incident will ever happen again.
Not touching on the political climate now in the states (this is a photo book review), the significance of this book can be understood. I picked this up in a frenzy over the winter holiday in the middle of photo walk in my mother’s town of Fremont, Nebraska thinking it was the original at a local thrift shop (didn’t have Wi-Fi on my Japanese iPhone to check). Born Free and Equal was the original release of this photo essay and released in the Fall of 1943 it was publicly burned in most cases with few remaining copies in existence in rare book rooms of US libraries. Ansel Adams the photographer of this series was so dejected by the reception of his book he declined to renew the copyright. Yet it is important to note this is Adams’ only work that we can call a “photo essay.”
The book here Manzanar is a collection of photos from Adams book coupled with a retrospective essay by John Hersey titled, “A Mistake of Terrifically Horrible Proportions” and further text by John Armor and Peter Wright.
The discovery after purchasing the book was in how little of an actual “photo” photo book this actual is and instead is quite filled with text giving the photos an arguably unneeded context, that I guess today nevertheless serves as an important lesson. Also, I am admittedly not the biggest Hersey fan and would much have preferred a Donald Richie or Donald Keene who actually promotes the culture from genuine experience…the book provides the necessary information.
Another knock is that if it was to simply be titled Manzanar and be about the camp itself then why not draw photos from other photographers who photographed it? Dorothea Lange visited the camp a year before Adams and would have been a nice inclusion or more authentically Toyo Miyatake who actually was a photographer that was interned at the camp but by law forbidden to take photos. The camp’s more liberal second director allowed Miyatake to have a camera to document his people and those photos have an entirely different feel from the two aforementioned photographers. Sadly, from what I have heard, there has only been one such retrospective in which Miyatake’s and Adams’ photos have been exhibited together. But perhaps I should stop with the politics of such decisions.
Focusing entirely on the photos and myself being an Adams fan (his prints!) this is such an interesting series precisely because it is his only photo essay. Manzanar itself is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada close to Yosemite where he was doing his life’s work. The photos he took in the internment camps consist of individual portraits, family photos in the homes, Japanese going about their lives in the camps, and outside shots of the condition in the area in general. He wasn’t allowed to shoot the barbed wired fences, guard towers, or any of the armed guards and cleverly instead shot from the guard towers suggesting their presence and escaping censorship.
The thing with these photos that you get with Adams’ more traditional photos is the attention to detail. The compositions are so sound and in every outside photo in context of the camp you can see perfectly exposed mountains as if they were his own signature in every shot. Moreover, the mountains serve as a substitute for the barbed wire gates he was never allowed to show that prohibited the freedom of these Americans with Japanese faces. Also in a departure for Adams, you can tell a lot of these where not photographed in his style of large format by the spontaneous nature of a lot of these photos. Couldn’t find an internet source to deny or confirm this fact but if true it would be a genuine rare incidence outside of his famed story book beginning where he used a Kodak brownie that he didn’t use large format for his photography.
Looking at one photo in particular, I thought the most symbolic was an overhead shot of internment camp members playing baseball. In the foreground are a bunch of on lookers perfectly making up the lower third of the photo. In the mid ground is the baseball game itself caught in perfect action of the batter swinging for the fence, and in the upper third are the bleachers that form a leading line to the mountains in the distance juxtaposed to nothingness in the upper right.
Baseball itself is an American sport that was readily adapted by the Japanese and must have been especially important to the Japanese Americans who are accused of being enemies of the state yet enjoy the same pastimes as any other American (this analogy is always made of the Negro league photos as well). Because it is Adams the mountains have their place in the frame and remind of us of the remote location they were interned at that conveys the subjects own isolated feeling by a country who abandoned them. I know from reading his autobiography this would precisely be the intention he would have wanted to convey. And still in it all, there is that nothingness in the top right beyond the mountains that the batter is swinging for…
With all this said, it is an important book. This version can be had for under ten dollars used on Amazon or virtually anywhere it is found (don’t pay more than $10). Perhaps for the photography crowd Photographs of Manzanar by Ansel Adams ($9.95 on amazon) would be a better purchase because of its emphasis on the photos, and if you are a collector…find Born Free Equal.
Thanks for sharing this review with us, Jesse. This is a really interesting look at Ansel Adams’ work, work that I was not aware of.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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