Palo Alto Obon

I danced in San José. I photographed in Mountain View. I wasn’t sure what I’d do in Palo Alto. Well besides eat. Of the three local festivals, Palo Alto is the one that just feels right. The food situation is well organized. There’s ample seating to eat. The dancing starts late and goes well into the night as people just have fun.

I ended up dancing again and taking photos while doing so. The low light gave my camera some problems but I like a decent number of these and they definitely give a good impression of what it was like to be there.

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Mountain View Obon

Having danced already at San José this year, I opted to watch and photograph Mountain View’s Obon festival. Where I’ve not missed San José’s festival for years, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Mountain View’s.

I gather that there were many changes this year as the city of Mountain View cracked down hard on the setup that they’ve been using forever. But it felt about the same to me and as they pointed out, impermanence is a core tenet of Buddhism itself.

The bigger change is in the area surrounding the temple and how it has turned into condo-mania since I last walked through there. But that’s a story about the evolution of the Bay Area and not just this festival. At least all the tech workers who were watching with me appeared to have a genuine interest in what was going on in their neighborhood.

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San José Obon

I didn’t get to have an Obon post last year because I ended up dancing for the first time.* I didn’t plan on it but the kids got really into the San José Obon practices and so I ended up helping and encouraging them and by the end of the summer they’d danced in multiple obons and had managed to convince my mom to outfit them with all the accoutrement that they’d need for the next year.

*A few post-odori photos did make it into my July backlog though.

Anyway, dancing was fun and while I don’t plan on doing it in every obon I attend, it’s nice to actually take part beyond just photographing the event. Also, I got to spend a year thinking about how I wanted to photograph this year’s odori while dancing. I opted for the “hold the camera in my hand and shoot viewfinderless” approach—a very different viewpoint than my previous telephoto shots and one that, aside from the consistency of who’s in the photo, I find myself enjoying just for the way it forces me to cede control.

Also, yes, my family was all wearing matching Giants happi.

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Magcloud

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Continuing my magazine experiments, this time I figured I’d give Magcloud a whirl. I was happy with Blurb’s magazines but I wanted to try smaller formats and experiment with saddlestitching. Magcloud’s 5.25″×8.25″ format looked ideal since it’s a decent size for vertical photos and the saddlestitch format is much more forgiving for crossovers so I can use similar-sized horizontal or square photos as well.

I’m pretty happy with the results. Magcloud uses very-good toner-based printing technology and the results are about as good as I’d expect from that. They do still show the typical telltale heavy-gloss in high-coverage areas* though so the overall result doesn’t feel as high quality to me as Blurb’s printing. But the print quality itself—screening, color, etc.—is plenty good.

*This is admittedly something I’m sensitive to and it only shows up in certain lighting situations anyway.

The only other thing which caught my attention is that Magcloud’s bindery operation is pretty loose. They want an eighth of an inch for bleeds and they mean it. I had a few photos where I could only spare a sixteenth of an inch for bleed and that wasn’t nearly enough, Magcloud needs the full eighth of an inch. Similarly, while the crossovers are mostly satisfactory, there’s a decent amount of play—over a sixteenth of an inch again—in terms of where the center fold is.

These aren’t complaints as the price is more than fair and the results are still fine. But they‘re worth keeping in mind so I don‘t expect anything better than that and treat these as the mini-projects/project dummies that they are. I don’t expect any of my magazines to be the final form of the projects, they’re just waypoints which scratch my urge to get things printed and which I can live with and look through until I’m ready to take the next step.

The magazines I made are all working through a bunch of small projects which I’m not sure what to do with yet. There are two which are photos from Powwow—one of the Aztec dancers, the other of the powwow itself.

There are two which are photos from Obon—one of San José Taiko, the other of the obon odori.

And there’s one which consists of photos from all the bounce house birthday parties I’ve been to.

Some of those projects I don’t expect to be adding to. Others might get a photo here or there each summer but I’m reaching the point where I’ll want to replace existing photos rather than add to the project overall. In all cases though I expect I’ll be heading back to Magcloud to do some more small projects and see how they work together.

Colors of Confinement

Bill Manbo. Colors of Confinement

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.

Bill Manbo. Colors of Confinement.

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.

Bill Manbo. Colors of Confinment.

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.

Note

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 all 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.

Born Free and Equal

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.