The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams @ Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown

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Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams @ the Fenimore Museum Cooperstown, NY April 1, 2021-July 25, 2021

Ansel Adams is best known for his landscape photography, his affiliation with the Sierra Club, and his advocacy for Yosemite. The use of tones and gradation in his prints are studied by serious students of photography to this day.

A less known part of his work was documenting the life at Manzanar in 1943, one of 10 camps that Japanese Americans were involuntarily moved to from the West Coast after the beginning of World War 2, for fear of them being security risks under Executive Order 1066 by FDR.  This aspect of his work is the subject of the exhibit at the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown.

Adams produced over 200 photos during his time working there. The bulk of the work was portraits. He also documented the camp itself and the everyday activity of its inhabitants who at the peak numbered in the 10s of thousands and were the largest city between LA and Las Vegas. Many of these photos were published the following year in the then controversial book , “Born Free and Equal”.

Adams was there at the invitation of fellow Sierra Cub member and friend Ralph Merritt who was the civilian project director. Ralph was sympathetic to the citizens there and wanted the life and dignity of the inhabitants documented such as weddings, funerals, and young men preparing to go to war for the Americans. A harsher view of the camp was taken by the military management of the time.

Three of my favorite Adams photos of the exhibit are shown here.

  1. Landscape- Overview of the site showing the stark beauty and isolation of the site. Inhabitants were subject to heat as high as 110degrees in the summer and cold winds in the winter. The inhabitants were required to grow their own food.
  2. Memorial- Particularly poignant. This single memorial was built to commemorate those who died there as there was a lack of materials for individual gravestones.
  3. Baseball- Showing that the Americans in the camp were indeed Americans as those living on the outside.

Another photographer’s work was also displayed. The work of Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake. Initially forbidden to take his gear into the camp; he smuggled his lens and a film holder into the camp with him and had a wood box built to assemble a camera. Sympathizers smuggled film and chemicals for him to continue his work. Initially, he conducted his work in secret, photographing in the early morning and at mealtime to avoid the guards. Eventually, Ralph Merritt learned of his work and legitimized it by making him an official photographer. The military was nervous about this so Merritt developed a workaround. Miyatake would set up the shot and a guard would press the shutter. The rules were gradually relaxed.

The major work that was not shown here was that of photojournalist Dorothea Lange. Her photographs portrayed the chaos and personal loss associated with the forced relocation and internment. She was hired by the military to use the photographs as a propaganda tool. Her photographs expressed the truth so the military had the photographs impounded as they clearly showed the great injustice.  They were classified as top secret and were not viewed by the public until 2006.

Along with the photographer were displays of the posters and other artifacts that dehumanized the Japanese as monkeys. Interestingly enough 10 people in the US were convicted of spying for the Japanese in the US, all were Caucasian.

The exhibit is on display until July 25th. For more information including zoom lectures to further enrich the public go to fenimoreartmuseum.org.  For more information on the photography documenting Manzanar and the other camps go to nps.gov/manz.

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