When America Burned Ansel Adams

The Icon

On June 9, 1980, President Jimmy Carter made his remarks at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony. In a star studded affair, John Wayne, Tennessee Williams, Rachel Carson, and Lyndon Baynes Johnson all stood to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor. President Carter described each of their extraordinary achievements, remarking that, “because of them, our Nation is a little more secure, a little less careless, a little more literate, a little more loving than we might otherwise have been”.

Ansel Adams is given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. Source: Ansel Adams Photography

The first person to be given the honor that night was a bald, white bearded, 78 year old Ansel Adams who President Carter rightly posited that, “It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans”.

President Carter noted that he himself had a photograph by Ansel Adams hanging in his office, echoing an American public who celebrated Adams’ for capturing the splendor of America’s national parks like no one before. Not only do many credit Ansel Adams for turning photography into a form of art (at one point a print of Adams held the record for the most expensive photograph sold at auction), but as his obituary in the New York Times argued, he was, “probably the best- known photographer in the United States”.

Adams is most famous for directing his lens at the natural beauty of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park. He spent years living and working there, even running guide cables up the Half Dome for climbers to cling to as they ascended. He was a director of the Sierra Club for 37 years, promoting the protection of America’s natural resources for the coming generations.

However, while his legacy is remembered for those black and white vistas of mountains and valleys, there is a collection of Ansel Adams pictures that many have forgotten. In some cases, this amnesia can be blamed on those Americans who were so disgusted by Adams that they publicly burned his work. This book was much less about the photographs, striking as they are, and more about his journey as an American confronting immigration and the exclusion of a particular nationality from society.

Ansel Adams Visits Manzanar

On February 14, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. With the nation still reeling from the Pearl Harbor attacks two months before, there was growing concerns among American civilians and government officials that Japanese-Americans were either involved in the attack or were plotting more attacks. Executive Order 9066 was intended to make, “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material,” and to do so established military areas where, “the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion”. Essentially the order created areas where, without the due process of law, Americans could be held without their consent.

The Americans who posed the greatest threat to national security? Japanese, Germans, and Italians.

Thus, 11,000 people with German ancestors, 3,000 with Italian ancestors, a number of Jewish refugees (they were German so naturally untrustworthy despite ethnic cleansing), and 117,000 people with Japanese ancestry were interned. Among those Japanese, 70,000 were American citizens. Disloyalty was assumed, though no evidence of widespread threats were ever presented.

Ten relocation centers were built across the United States, including one in Owens Valley, California. Manzanar, by September 1942, came to house more than 10,000 Japanese Americans. It was here that Ansel Adams came in 1944.

Manzanar Relocation Center from tower. Photograph by Ansel Adams, from the Library of Congress

Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains, spread out across over 5,000 acres of desolate landscape, Manzanar internment camp served both to protect America from Japanese-Americans as well as to protect those same Japanese-Americans from Americans who might harbor hostile feelings. Remarked one intern, “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”

Ansel Adams was invited to come photograph Manzanar by the camp’s director Ralph Merritt, a fellow Sierra Club member, in 1943. From his experience there, Adams wrote a book, Born Free and Equal, which was published in 1944. He filled the book with beautiful photographs and a plethora of words that chronicled his own personal journey in how he viewed the people he met there.

Understanding the “Other”

What many readers are struck by upon opening Born Free and Equal (don’t shell out the money for the paper copy; it is free digitally from the Library of Congress) is that so many of the pictures are of people. In the introduction, Adams clearly expresses who the photographs and words are meant for:

“It is addressed to the average American citizen, and is conceived on a human, emotional basis, accenting the realities of the individual and his environment rather than considering the loyal Japanese Americans as an abstract, amorphous, minority group. This impersonal grouping, while essential to the factual study of racial and sociological problems, frequently submerges the individual, who is of greatest importance.”

Mrs. Yaeko Nakamura. Photograph by Ansel Adams, from the Library of Congress.

Adams makes this a point, because he himself is an American who, as the book begins, harbors the widespread feelings of suspicion towards the Japanese- Americans. He quotes the director of Manzanar, who argues that the relocation was not just, but, “it was Justified”. He echoed the uneasy feelings of Americans who knew that deep down there was nothing to be worried about from immigrants but wanted to be safe, so whatever had to be done should be done. Adams visited Manzanar as the average American might, but was changed by what he saw. This is the point that critics of the book failed to see. 

Richard Kobayashi, farmer with cabbages. Photograph by Ansel Adams, from the Library of Congress.

Adams, with the eye of an artist, captured those at Manzanar to highlight the beauty he found. He shows how resilient the “loyal Americans were”, that in the face of such adversity they could still smile and feel patriotism. Images of baseball games framed by the distant mountains. Laughing children. Nurses relaxing and playing cards. He wrote about the people he met, about the conversations he had, each one changing his impression of what was happening there. What he shows is the people had adapted to the environment there and were not bowed by the experience. He is particularly struck by the fact that many of the Japanese-Americans there decided, against common rationale, to join the Army to fight and die in the war.

In his conversations he meets a newspaper editor, Roy Takeno, who laments that, “America has not assimilated all who have assimilated America”. The people, Adams realizes, are simply seeking to be given a chance to be viewed as Americans, a chance few were offering. Another man, an X-ray technician named Michael Koichi Yonemitsu, explains to Adams how the relocation and internment changed his view of American life, but he remained eager to contribute to society in the future.

Adams ends the book with a reflection upon what he has seen and learned. He somberly concludes that, “Hatred is a natural complement to fear…and is otherwise difficult to assure otherwise solid and sincere people that ancestral relation to the enemy does not prove disloyalty.” In the end, it seems, Adams does an abrupt turn from his agreement with the “not just but justified” argument of Manzanar’s director and that of many Americans, and instead recognizes that it was fear that clouded the rational thinking of the country.

Thus Adams exposes his main rationale of the book: to introduce Americans to the very people they feared in an attempt to expose the mistake which had been made in locking up people who were as loyal to the United States as a any white citizen. Returning to his introduction, Adams reminds people that it is the individual we must focus on, not the nebulous group that many struggle to understand and thus, struggle to stop fearing.

Sadly, many people failed to see his point.

Baseball game, Manzanar Relocation Center. Photograph by Ansel Adams, from the Library of Congress

Burning Adams

Upon publication of the book, reactions were mixed. The Hartford Courant published a positive review of the book, praising that, “Adams finds these Japanese-Americans singularly like any other cross-section of Americans, a community of individuals worthy of being treated as such rather than of being stigmatized as suspect because they hadn’t the foresight to select ancestors of another race.” It concludes that Adams is not attempting to sway the viewpoints of readers, but simply tries to introduce, as he experienced, “some of those interned at Manzanar.” He humanized the perceived enemy in hopes an educated America would see the reality of the situation.

Not all saw it that way. Especially on the West Coast, where many of the Japanese-Americans had been forcibly removed from, Americans were horrified at the attempt to paint the enemy in such a positive light. Fearful that such opinions would weaken American resolve, Born Free and Equal was publicly burned in San Francisco.

Family upon arrival at Manzanar. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, from the Library of Congress.

Ansel Adams was not the only one to document the internment camps on film. Dorthea Lange, famous for her photographs during the Great Depression, particularly for Migrant Mother, spoke scathingly about Adams. She saw Adams attempt to find beauty in the situation as “shameful”, as her photographs pained a grim picture of repressed people locked away, drawing parallels with Nazi concentration camps. Lange’s judgement of Adams has been echoed by critics ever since. In a 2006 New York Times article on Lange’s photographs, her portrayal is viewed as real, showing the horrors of life in the internment camps, while Adams simply showed people as “heroic”. Note how the Lange’s image on the right seems chaotic and stressful, compared to the serene images above. 

What is lost in the argument over how perceived enemies of the United States, and our subsequent actions against them, are viewed by Americans is this: both sides of the narrative are important.

Lange appealed to those who already were horrified by what the nation had done and needed to have more ammunition, in the form of stricken faces and dust covered people, to continue their fight. She pulled at the already strung heartstrings of an angry audience.

Adams on the other hand appealed to those who supported Japanese internment, who thought Japanese-American were not to be trusted, but still felt some reservations about the idea. He attempted to walk them through his own journey which allowed him to see things differently. Portraying horrible conditions wouldn’t cut it for that audience; photographs of Japanese-Americans playing baseball would.  

In the end, Manzanar closed in 1945, having withstood a 1944 Supreme Court challenge, Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the legality of interning citizens. However, in 1983, the US Civil Liberties Act acknowledged the error of the US government and granted $20,000 to each of the 83,000 people who had been interned. However, the United States has never overturned the Supreme Court case which upheld the Constitutionality of holding loyal Americans against their will.

Born free and equal?

Tom Kobayashi, Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Photograph by Ansel Adams, from the Library of Congress.