Tag Archives: Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

This is the American Earth

Originally posted on NJWV as part of an occasional series of posts where Nick revisits books which he grew up with.

This, as citizens, we all inherit. This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future.

—Nancy Newhall

Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.
Ansel Adams. Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine.
Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.
Margaret Bourke-White. Contour Plowing.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
William Garnett. Housing Developments, Los Angeles.
Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.
Ansel Adams. Burnt Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada.
Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.
Ansel Adams. Lake Tenaya, Yosemite.
Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.
Eliot Porter. Tern in Flight.
Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.
Ansel Adams. Aspens, New Mexico.

And to what shabby hells of our own making do we rush? A poisoned, gutted planet, rolling through noxious air?

—Nancy Newhall

I’ll probably write this in every post of this series but one of the best parts of revisiting the photobooks I grew up with is finally reading the text. When I was a kid, photobooks were for looking at the photos and, maybe, reading the captions. Longer text that goes with the photos? No way. Which is a shame since all of the photobooks I grew up with were inherently political and had things to say beyond just the photos.

This is the American Earth is distinct among my parents’ photobooks because it’s the only one which I remember looking at for PHOTOGRAPHY™ reasons. Ansel Adams was definitely the first brand name photographer I learned of* and I seem to recall not only ignoring the text but also all the non-Adams photos in the book.

*One of the reasons I suspect that so many photographers profess to no longer like Ansel’s work is due to how he’s typically the first famous photographer people learn of and so is a distinctly obvious choice.

This meant that I missed out on a much of the best parts of the book. Adams, for being the “featured” photographer cedes a lot of space to other artists in order to flesh out the argument for conservation and demonstrate the different ways we use and experience the land.* And Newhall’s text is a wonderful short history of human civilization as explained by ruins and despoiling.

*While I skipped the text I apparently couldn’t fully-ignore the photos. I may not have studied them like I did the Adams images yet many of them (e.g. Eliot Porter’s  Terns or Margaret Bourke White’s Contour Plowing) are deeply familiar to me in and “oh THAT’S where I saw that” kind of way.

Reading that text one month into the Trump administration is still a shock even though I know and agree with what it’s saying. This book is almost sixty years old. 60. Yet its warning and advocacy are as important and relevant as ever. Our history of ruins. Our history of despoiling. The idea that we only know what we’re losing now that it’s almost gone. The call to action.

Part of it feels as inspiring as it must’ve felt in 1960. The idea that we can do something. The idea that we were smart enough to create National Parks. That we can obviously do more. And I know that we did make a lot of progress in these areas. When I was a kid, acid rain was a thing, air quality was awful, we were dumping trash in the ocean, and everyone was worried we’d run out of landfill space. None of those are issues my kids have to learn about because we’ve made changes in how we live.

Despite everything though, we never made a dent in the climate change disaster we’re about to endure. Plus we’re in the midst of trying to roll back the past six decades of advances. While I know that it’s short-term “pro-business” thinking doing the pushing, but there’s more to it that that. Like much of the backlash against the social progress we’ve made since the 1960s, I think that we’ve been almost too successful in making the changes and so we’ve forgotten what the alternatives are.

We’re now used to beautiful unspoiled landscapes. We live with them as our computer wallpapers. We see friends post them on social media. Meanwhile we’ve now forgotten that the images in This is the American Earth images existed effectively in parallel with Documerica. And yes, we have photos of ruined and wasted landscapes now too, but they don’t have the same sense of next door that Documerica does. We no longer see the pollution and, after a cold winter, even a disturbingly early spring feels like a blessing instead of a portent.

So the other, stronger reaction I have to the book now is reading it as an epitaph for America—if not humanity. A last hurrah of hope and change before everything melted away. I thought of Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures and how its point of view involved both contemplation of humanity’s impact on the Earth with the hope and promise of new experiences and new generations.

Except where Paglen is looking into the future and designed an object to outlast us all, Adams and Newhall have given us a book which will remind us of what could’ve been had we been less selfish and afraid.

There’s still hope in here, but it’s less in the beautiful photos of unspoiled wilderness and more in the photos which show how we’re using the land. As long as we’re invested in use—farming, housing, water, etc.—there’s an incentive to keep the land sustainable. These photos depict infrastructure that we’re still familiar with and understand the necessity of. They explicitly remind us how humans and the Earth are intertwined.

Meanwhile, the wilderness photos—especially the number which depict regrowth or new growth—suggest that no matter what humans do, Earth will survive. Many beautiful things and places will be lost but nature’s capacity to reclaim what we’ve despoiled is much stronger than we give it credit.

Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.

California: The Art of Water

This originally posted on NJWV.

Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.
Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.
William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.
William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.
Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, Cal., ca. 1871.
Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, Cal., ca. 1871.
Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.
Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.
Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.
Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.
Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.
Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.
Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.
Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.
Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1California, USA, 2009.
Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1, California, USA, 2009.
David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.
David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.

The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.

Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.

As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.

*As with war photography, it’s always worth remembering that perspective is a disease of the eye

This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.

It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.

*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.

In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.

Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.

What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.

sfmoma_cawest2

California and the West

This originally posted on NJWV.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, 1871-1873
Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, 1871-1873
Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004
Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004
Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987
Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987
Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974
Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974
Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978
Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978
Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton’s trial, July 30, 1968
Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton’s trial, July 30, 1968
Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981
Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981
Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934
Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934
Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938
Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938
Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009
Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009
Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016
Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016

The main photography show at the new SFMOMA is on California and the West and how they have had an integral role in the development of the art form. It’s good but is more of a primer, introducing the different photographic “schools” that have developed here. In other words, it’s a bit thin and I wish it had gone deeper.

The main issue is that it sort of waffles between being organized thematically versus being ordered chronologically. The wall text suggests that things are chronological but the actual photos for a supposed time period end up covering over a century. This is most obvious in the Early Landscapes room. It feels like it’s about the 19th century Watkins, Russell, Muybridge, and O’Sullivan school of mammoth plates, albumen prints, pristine spectacular western landscapes, and our early attempts at taming them. But it goes into Ansel Adams work from ~50 years later and even includes a Friedlander photo from 2004.

In many ways the exhibition would’ve been better off just making the rooms purely thematic—similar to Oakland’s Inspiration Points show a couple years ago. This is pretty much how I chose to approach the show after the first couple of rooms. By focusing on the themes and ignoring the chronology cues, I found myself thinking about how each theme could cover ~150 years of photography in the West.

Early Landscapes was intended to set up a transition to the New West.* These photographs are very much my thing. I love Baltz and Robert Adams. Henry Wessel’s photo of the  Richmond garage tree is fantastic.** It’s always nice to see Shore prints.

*I’m tempted to start calling the pristine landscapes either “Old West” or “Old Topographics” a retronyms to either The New West or The New Topographics.

**And I’m completely unable to find it online anywhere.

The comparison between these views of The West is one which I feel deeply in my own photography. I very much love going out into nature and hiking with my camera. I also love going out into the suburban sprawl and taking photos of—and criticizing—the cityscape that has resulted. They’re more than just a core part of my visual literacy, they’re home. 

I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

While the Old West is distinct from the New West, the New West is visible in many of the Old West photos. “Photographing the incursion of technology into nature” is one of photography’s original subjects. Watkins and Robert Adams may have had different goals with their photography, but we can see as many similarities in their work as we can see between Watkins and Ansel Adams.

I found it interesting that the conflict and chaos theme—really more about demographic change—only started with photos from the 1960s. Muybridge photographed the Modoc War 100 years prior.* Dorothea Lange has photographs from the Great Depression in the adjoining room. The history of California is a history of conflict and demographic change, it’s not something which started in the 60s.

*Also an exhibition at the California Historical Society which I need to see this summer.

I do however enjoy seeing how photographers address the social issues of their time. Where political comment is often absent from the rest of the modern art canon,* photography has always been on the front lines. As much as there’s disagreement about what the democratic camera means, it’s pretty clear that as an art form, photography is somewhat unique in how it’s accessible to many more people and has always had an element of not just witnessing, but being part of any conflicts.

*In the rest of the museum, it’s only visible in the Anselm Keifer and Gerhard Richter rooms. But for the rest of the art from the 1960s and 1970s? If there were politics in it it’s long been scrubbed from the wall texts. 

It’s not just conflicts either. A lot of the changes are long-term gradual things which may not even depict changes but rather illustrate existing inequality. These images though, by Jim Goldberg or Carrie Mae Weems, get short shrift in this exhibition. Goldberg’s Rich and Poor is hung on both sides of a hallway—which makes no sense for a series which encourages both close inspection and zig-zagging between images. Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried meanwhile is one of those photo series which needs to be seen in its entirety yet only two of the images are on display.

That economic and racial inequality are the two big issues for this year’s election, I can’t help but sort of side-eye the way both of them are minimized here.

Speaking of Lange and social justice, while I approve of featuring the “founders/ƒ.64” as being an important theme of western photography, keeping so much of their work outside of the themes in the rest of the rooms felt strange. The group wasn’t about content but rather technique. Their photos fit with all the other themes in the exhibition. There are pristine landscapes, technological changes, and demographic conflicts on display here, but the exercise in tying them into the other rooms is left to the viewer.

As an ƒ.64 room though I liked that they stayed away from most of the super-iconic photos. There’s Lange’s road. And a few of the Weston images are very familiar. But this room could have been full of just photographs I’ve seen over and over again.* I enjoy just absorbing more of their other work.

*Note, there should probably be such a room at SFMOMA because many of those ƒ.64 photos are extremely important to both photography and the idea that photography is art and all of them are inherently part of the Bay Area’s role in art history.

The last theme involves photographers playing with the medium itself. I’ve been on record saying that I consider Weston to be part of this group but most of these photos are much more recent. As such, many of them don’t quite do it for me.* The ones that do though I really like. In particular, Larry Sultan using day laborers as models and the weird ethical questions they create in the resulting photos. Did they know what they were getting in to? What does it mean to stage photos of gente day laborers using those day laborers as models? I don’t have good answers here either but I enjoy thinking about the questions.

*Contemporary Art is still being sorted by Sturgeon’s Law.

I also loved Klea McKenna’s photograms. And it’s always nice to see Trevor Paglen on display although putting him in the playing-with-the-medium room risks reducing a lot of his work to being about technique rather than interrogating the inherent nature of photography as being surveillance.

Looking at the recent photos though provides a clear example of how art photography has embraced the “make it fucking large” ethos of the collector-driven market. So many of the prints are not just huge, but possibly too big to the point that they feel like they’re only trying to be appreciated for their size rather than as images to be looked at. I understand why this is the case* but I don’t have to like the results.

*They have to compete with paintings and other media in a “bigger is better” arms race in the art-collector world rather than focusing on just photography collectors.

So yeah. I like many of the individual photos but was kind of unsold on the larger theme of the exhibition. As with the opening shows in the rest of the museum, this felt very much like a for-the-masses sketch of possibilities for future shows while staking a claim on a lot of territory.

Photoland shibboleths

Inspired by Lazenby.

Name Pronunciation
Ansel Adams Actually I prefer Robert
Diane Arbus dee-ON
Eugène Atget ah-JAY
Rineke Dijkstra DIKE-struh
Robert Doisneau row-bear dwa-no
Peter Lik I’ve never heard of him
Philip-Lorca diCorcia Just get the hyphens and capitalization correct
Lázló Moholy-Nagy mo-ho-li naj
Edward Ruscha roo-SHAY
Alec Soth rhymes with both
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Pictures and mementoes on phonograph top: Yonemitsu home.

Born Free and Equal

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Richard Kobayashi, farmer with cabbages.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Richard Kobayashi, farmer with cabbages.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Harry Hanawa, mechanic.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Harry Hanawa, mechanic.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Corporal Jimmie Shohara.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Corporal Jimmie Shohara.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Pictures and mementoes on phonograph top: Yonemitsu home.
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Pictures and mementoes on phonograph top: Yonemitsu home.

I’ve had a copy of Born Free and Equal* on my shelf for a while. I’ve flipped through it a few times but never really looked that closely, or read the essays, in it until recently. It took receiving a copy of Colors of Confinement** for Christmas to give me the push to actually look at Adams’s work and realize how distinct—in both weird and great ways—it is.

*I have this version of it which is very clear about not being associated with anything officially Ansel Adams branded. Given how the photos are in the public domain there’s probably some interest in comparing different printings too. It’s also interesting to see how the Library of Congress has digitized the collection by scanning both Adams’s prints and his negatives and presenting both versions as high-resolution downloads.

**Yes I’ll have a post on this coming eventually to.

Adams’s work was not part of the WRA and so isn’t government propaganda. At the same time, with its heroic headshots and optimistic assimilated future it feels incredibly propagandalike. There’s nothing here about hardship or injustice. None of the camp watchtowers or fences are pictured.* Everyone is identified as American. And all the activities depicted—baseball, scouting, marching band, home decor, toys, clothing, etc.—are “American.” The rare “unamerican” things—tofu preparation and buddhist rituals—are part of larger lists rather than highlighted images in their own right.

*While the texts says that Adams was not allowed to shoot the fences or watch towers, his photographs are not about confinement at all.

The portraits in particular are indeed heroic: full sun, tightly cropped, no context besides occupation. While we know that the subjects suffered hardships, they’re unbowed, optimistic, and looking forward to bigger and better things. The other photos are similar in tone and emphasize the working settlement and community which they have built in a tough landscape. The text accompanying the images expands on these themes by emphasizing loyalty, their post-internment relocation plans, and how they’ll become productive Americans.

I fully understand why this point of view was needed at the time. And why it got Adams into a bit of trouble when he exhibited these photographs in 1944. Still, the assimilationist view bugs me. Both in how it defines what it means to be an American and by extension, what it implies is non-American. While these photos aren’t about confinement, they are about a loss of culture.* To present as American, most of the Japaneseness has been scrubbed out of the photos.

*Which, given how big a deal Obon and other Nikkei Matsuri are still today, is distinctly not what happened.

At the same time, I can’t hate on these photos. Despite my issues with them, a large part of me is overjoyed to see Asian-Americans presented as simply, American. What makes these photos distinctly great is that it’s sadly jarring to see this view even today. Many people still do not expect “regular Americans” to be Asian. We need to see this representation more often.

Looking through the photos with today’s eyes and I also see some weirdness going on. Despite not being about confinement at all, because Adams published them at a larger scale under his name, they sort of became the most-likely collection of internment images for people to have seen. Internment is correctly remembered as one of the United States’ major mistakes in civil rights yet the images associated with it are these heroic ones which gloss over most of the abuses. I found myself wanting to look at some of the more critical photos as well. Thankfully, the book has essays which point in the correct direction.

Archie Miyatake’s essay about his father, Toyo, is especially informative. Toyo Miyatake became the official Manzanar camp photographer after smuggling in a lens and ground glass. At first he photographed on the sly with his home-made camera* and smuggled film and chemicals but eventually gained the acceptance of the camp director and photographed officially.

*This camera has become a symbol in its own right of the internment and internees willingness to fight the system.

I went looking for more of Miyatake’s photos of the camp. There are precious few of them online* but I was able to find copies of Two Views of Manzanar—a catalog from a 1978 show of Miyatake’s and Adams’s Manzanar photographs— and Elusive Truth: Four Photographers at Manzanar—a 2002 book** which features Miyatake, Adams, Clem Albers, and Dorothea Lange and frames the internment as something we need to remember in a post-September 11 world.*** There’s also a good, but long, series of posts by Nancy Matsumoto which covers all this ground and then some.

*Which is why there are none in this post.

**I can’t recommend it since some of the photos are printed horribly. Thankfully JARDA exists instead so I can find higher resolution versions of what’s in the book.

***There’s no need to discuss Adams’s photos again but it is worth noting that the subjects are identified by name instead of occupation in these two books.

Miyatake’s photos are interesting. Lots of posed documentary shots since that’s what he was supposed to be doing in the camp. But also a lot of images that Adams didn’t, or couldn’t show.  The watchtowers. Posing by the barbed wire fences. Kids lined up at the toy loan center. It’s very clear how this is strange confined world which is not acceptable.

There’s also a lot of the flip side to what Adams’s photos show. Where Adams photographed members of the 442nd as American heroes, Miyatake photographed their departure and their funerals and the way this impacted the community left behind—especially the Issei who Adams didn’t depict and who can’t be described as Americans because they weren’t allowed to become citizens.

The photos aren’t all negative though. Miyatake’s aims were more about capturing and remembering what happened rather than publishing and achieving social change. He wanted to be in Manzanar for the duration and have images which showed the entirety of the camp to future generations. There are photos of graduations and Christmases and other events showing how life went on and people had fun and things weren’t horrible even though nothing depicted should be considered normal. Ever.

Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42 A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry arrives here by train prior to being transferred by bus to Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center
Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42
A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry arrives here by train prior to being transferred by bus to Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center.
Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry arrive here by train and await buses for Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center.
Clem Albers. Lone Pine, California. 4/1/42.
Evacuees of Japanese ancestry arrive here by train and await buses for Manzanar, now a War Relocation Authority center.
Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42. Evacuees clearing brush to enlarge this War Relocation Authority center which will house 10,000 evacuees of Japanese ancestry for the duration.
Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42.
Evacuees clearing brush to enlarge this War Relocation Authority center which will house 10,000 evacuees of Japanese ancestry for the duration.
Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42. Evacuees of Japanese descent carry their personal effects preparatory to setting up housekeeping at this War Relocation Authority center.
Clem Albers. Manzanar, California. 4/2/42.
Evacuees of Japanese descent carry their personal effects preparatory to setting up housekeeping at this War Relocation Authority center.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42. A chef of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center. Evacuees find opportunities to follow their callings.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42.
A chef of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center. Evacuees find opportunities to follow their callings.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 6/30/42. View of barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority center, showing outside entrances.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 6/30/42.
View of barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority center, showing outside entrances.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 5/20/42. Enjoying an afternoon stroll at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 5/20/42.
Enjoying an afternoon stroll at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42. Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. 7/2/42.
Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center.

Sort of ironically, it’s the official WRA photographs which end up hammering the social justice angle of the camps. Clem Albers and Dorothea Lange have different axes to grind—Albers is skeptical of the government and Lange is all about social change—but together their photos capture a much different Manzanar. Instead of the self-sufficient settlement that Adams shows, the WRA photos show the camp at its worst—needing to be cleared and built by the same people who were to be confined there.

Albers in particular is very smart about trying to show confinement while following the guidelines of not showing actual confinement. He frames subjects behind glass or in tight rooms or somehow otherwise confined. And if he can’t do that he includes a caucasian authority figure who, while not being depicted negatively, implies that there is more going on in the image. Why does the military police need to be involved with getting children or the elderly off of a train?

Lange meanwhile sees the internees as tragic figures who are being horribly wronged by their government. Her photos emphasize the existing context of what has been done to the internees. If you include her work of the evacuation before the camps were set up,* this point of view becomes even stronger. They’ve lost so much and are now working extremely hard in an inhospitable place to eek out their living. There’s no future in mind, only our complicity in what’s been done to them already.

*Most famously her I Am An American photo.

Lange and Albers’s photos look more like what I’d expect images of the internment to look like. Harsh, brutal, unjust images of an unjust event. Looking at them solidified my takeaway from Adams’s work about how weirdly great it is. Despite its assimilationist tones, there is something wonderful about presenting an oppressed group not only as humans but as peers who have persevered despite the oppression. All too often we only see the oppression and suffering which, while important to witness, risks making someone else’s pain into a spectacle.