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The Japanese internment camps that the U.S. established during World War II are the subject of two stunning exhibitions at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The Skirball shows depict life in the Manzanar camp and the internment experience in photos by Ansel Adams and drawings by Miné Okubo, via works depicting an embarrassingly disturbing period in U.S. history with honesty and emotion.
Well known for his black-and-white photographs of western landscapes, Adams made a risky career move in visiting and photographing life at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, as it was officially called. Built in California, Manzanar was 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles and a little south of Yosemite, where Adams took many of his most famous shots. In fact, the traveling exhibit of Adams’ photos, enhanced with loans from the Japanese American National Museum and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), opens with two classic Adams landscape shots showing the beautiful area – not far from the dusty desolation of the camp.
During the war, more than 110,000 Japanese people and Japanese Americans (two-thirds of whom were citizens) were detained in 10 camps in more isolated areas of the U.S., largely in the West. Over 10,000 people were detained at Manzanar between 1942 and 1945.
Invited by his friend Ralph Merritt, who ran Manzanar, Adams made a series of trips to shoot community activities there from October 1943 to July 1944. The resulting photos were published in a controversial book, Born Free and Equal, and shown in a Museum of Modern Art show in 1944. The photos were criticized by some for being too idealized and other as too sympathetic to his subjects.
Adams’ did not take his usual photos. In fact, the collection at the Skirball has a lot of close-up head shots. The exhibit includes permission slips on loan from UCLA that Adams had his subjects sign, an irony given that they had lost most of their other rights.
Adams also depicted the paradox of camp existence in a still life. It shows a photo of a soldier fighting for his country (the U.S.) along with letters he mailed “home” to Manzanar.
While Adams takes top billing, the Skirball exhibit also contains artifacts like tags put on the people and their luggage. There is a section covering the Pearl Harbor bombing, the resultant fear and paranoia as latent racism became blatant racism. One item shown is a LIFE magazine article on “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese.”
Additionally, there are photos by two other photographers: Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake. Lange, whose dust bowl images are well known, was hired by the government to document the forced internment. Her photos show the despair and bewilderment the people experienced, an honesty and critical view that forced the government to impound the photos for years.
Cameras were forbidden for the internees. However, Miyatake snuck in a lens and fil; he then got a carpenter to build him a box camera in the camp. He secretly took pictures initially. But, Merritt eventually let him do so openly and get better equipment to shoot and develop his images. He even shot photos for the camp school yearbooks.
The drawings of the camp experience by Miné Okubo, an artist from Riverside, Calif., are featured in a separate exhibit. Okubo’s emotional works about her internment experience were published in a book, Citizen 13660. The name alone is telling that the country labeled them as citizens, but imprisoned and reduced their identity to numbers reminiscent of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
An adult who earned a Master’s degree and studied art in Europe prior to war starting there, Okubo wound up being interned in the Topaz, Utah, camp along with one brother. The family members were actually split among four camps in four states. Another brother served in the armed forces during the family’s internment period.
To document the injustices of and life in the camps, Okubo created approximately 200 pen-and-ink drawings capturing her experience. In contrast, the exhibit also includes pieces from her later “happy period” years later.
The dual exhibits on Manzanar and Internment Life with works by Ansel Adams and Miné Okubo open on Oct. 8, 2015, at the Skirball. They will be there through Feb. 21, 2016.
Written and directed by Dyanne Weiss
Preview of exhibits Oct. 7, 2015
Skirball: Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams
Skirball: Citizen 13660: The Art of Miné Okubo
Rafu Shimpo: Miné Okubo’s Artwork, Ansel Adams’ Photographs At Skirball
Photos by Ansel Adams, Entrance to Manzanar and Pictures on Top of Phonograph, Yanemitsu home, 1943. Private collection; courtesy of Photographic Traveling Exhibitions.
Drawing by Miné Okubo, 1942. Drawing. Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum, gift of Miné Okubo Estate.