An evening in San Francisco along the waterfront. I stopped taking photos once I ran out of light. A ot of these are nearby the relocated Exploratium.
Category Archives: photography
Bill Manbo’s Colors of Confinement is very different than anything I cover in my Born Free and Equal post. Where even Miyatake as an insider was taking photos as documentation of the camp itself, Manbo is just photographing his life. There’s no expected audience besides his own family and no goals beyond remembering.
The photos are a lot of fun. It’s a beautiful area and Manbo’s a technically competent photographer who’s able to work in low light with slow film* as well as frame things beyond just bulls-eying his subjects. Color is especially welcome. Given how popular colorizing old photos is it’s always nice to be reminded that color images do exist from the 1940s. Something about seeing things in color moves internment into the “color” era rather than the “black and white” era and even while I know better, I have to admit that there is something more accessible about these.
*Lots of sunrises and sunsets which, while obvious subjects, are not the easiest thing to shoot with ASA8 or ASA10 speed film.
What sets the book apart though are the essays. They’re all great but the most-interesting point is Jasmine Alinder’s assertion that the family snapshot is a human right. She reaches this point by describing why cameras were eventually allowed into the camps but the general point stands on its own. Despite the tendency of photography rights to get caught up in documentary evidence and whistleblowing, it’s vernacular photography which allows us to construct our sense of self.
This is much of the appeal of looking through old photo albums in general. There is a universality to images of kids playing and growing up; local celebrations and events; group photos just because everyone’s together. We see ourselves and recognize elements of our own lives in these photos. They aren’t art or journalism but while every family has very similar images, these are the first things to be saved in a disaster.
Manbo’s photos are a perfect example of this. He shows life and the good things going on just like most people’s photos do. There’s lots of fun and joy and the kind of memories everyone wants to have. The only difference here is that the setting is an internment camp.
The photos don’t deny or hide the setting. It is what it is—heck, there’s even some palpable anger present in some of the frames. But they humanize the inhabitants by showing how they live and how normal life is—despite the obvious abnormal nature of the situation—by presenting them in the same kinds of photos that we all have in our family albums.
The standard documentary approach typically involves casting the subjects as tragic figures. This is conventionally powerful and absolutely necessary, but the more I see it the more I find myself questioning our tendency to treat it as the most important point of view. It’s not exactly a trope, but it comes really close to that in how the subjects of the photos are only important in how their otherness can move the viewers emotionally.
Again, this isn’t to say that Dorothea Lange’s photos of internees are bad and that we shouldn’t see the suffering. But it’s important to be aware of the kinds of photos which are missing from most documentary photography. If you don’t see the photos of people living, kids growing up, normal everyday life, you’re not seeing the things that make them human like the rest of us. And that’s a bit of a problem.
Are the camps awful? At one level, absolutely.* At another. Not really. It’s clear looking at these photos why so many of the sansei kids who grew up in these camps don’t remember them as being bad. There was so much for them to do since the goal was to keep the kids busy.** Skating, sledding, sports, scouting, bands, etc. Kids had free reign in a safe environment and got to grow up in school and social environments where they weren’t minorities.
*Nor were they ever as great as Adams portrays them. Compared to Lange, Adams’s heroic photos are the other side of the coin in how they have very specific aims about how they want their white audience to react to what the non-white people depicted in the photos have gone through.
**And turn them into Americans.
Treating the camps as uniformly and undeniably awful does a disservice to the diversity of the experiences of the internees.* It’s weird to say you enjoyed the camps if you feel you’re supposed to have hated it and it robs you of your own agency and memory to have a forced narrative like that. Manbo’s photos directly challenge the standard narrative by showing all the fun parts of the camps in a non-PR way.
There’s also a lot to be said for the cultural developments in the camps as the internees formed distinct Japanese-American traditions like Obon which are still celebrated today. This isn’t just cultural pluralism which celebrates Japanese things alongside American ones, it’s the development of new American traditions.
*Lon Kurashige’s essay in the book thoroughly covers this territory.
Where the WRA and the Ansel Adams photos emphasize “American” activities like scouting and baseball, Manbo shows other cultural aspects which didn’t fit that narrative but are as important and recognizable to Japanese Americans today. While I like the photos which demonstrate the traditionally American activities, the incompleteness of the picture frustrates me. Each time I go to Obon I see kids participating who are a fourth, or less, Japanese. But this is their culture and it’s a highlight of summer. It’s great to see photos of the beginning of new American traditions rather than getting only the prescriptive framing about what kinds of things are, or aren’t, American.
A selection of these photos came to Princeton for display in one of the dorm galleries. It’s nice to see big prints on the walls but I think I prefer these in book form. They’re more something I’d like to flip through and take in as an album rather than browsing through in a gallery. This might be an “art or not” distinction but it’s also related to how Manbo’s photos work better as a group rather than individual images.
One thing about the big prints that did catch my eye is that they’re printed with the black edge of the slide holder visible but cut off (much like the images on this webpage are). The book puts these images on black backgrounds so the presentation looks more like what a slideshow would look like.
I also caught much of the round table discussion about these photos. Not enough to provide a summary but I really liked Joshua Chambers-Letson’s talk about race as performance both from a double consciousness point of view and with the idea that Americana itself is a performance. This made a lot of sense in the context of al the internment photos since the tensions between being American and being foreign and being “loyal” and resisting what was being done to you course through everything here.
There’s also always the sense of oversight in the internment photos. Whether it’s oversight by the WRA censors or the camp management or the watchtowers looming in the background—or just out of frame of the images themselves. It’s not much a stretch to consider the oversight in photography now as we construct our own panopticons and continue to deal with racial issues in current society.
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.
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.