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Ansel Adams: his take on Manzanar


The Fresno area has gotten to know a lot about the World War II internment camp at Manzanar. Credit goes to the Fresno County Library’s “California Reads” series of events revolving around Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s book “Farewell to Manzanar.” In recent weeks, events have included a prominent legal team discussing the presidential executive order that sent Japanese-Americans to the camp, an afternoon devoted to traditional Japanese arts and dance, and a visit to Fresno by the author herself.

One of the most intriguing Manzanar offerings is on display at the Fresno Art Museum through Jan. 7. In “Ansel Adams’ Born Free & Equal: Photographs of the Manzanar Relocation Camp, 1943 to 1944,” we see the famed photographer in a rare journalistic moment. He was given the opportunity by the U.S. War Relocation Authority to photograph in the camps, but there were some strict rules: He couldn’t highlight anything “negative” about the camps.

In my Sunday Spotlight column, I write about the result:

The cumulative effect is one of tranquility and high spirits. There are no images of guard towers or barbed wire. No downtrodden expressions. No grim depictions of the dust storms that ravaged the Owens Valley, where the camp was located. A cursory glimpse suggests a happy and productive community.

Yet as you can imagine, it was a lot more complicated than that.


Adams obviously was ambivalent about the project. He wanted to show the patriotism of the Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar. Yet he also took care to capture the confined nature of the camp. In my column, I point to various signs that he was trying to offer the most well-rounded view of the camp he could under the circumstances.

I also note in my column another interesting angle about the show:

This photographic set used to belong to the now defunct Fresno Metropolitan Museum, which had its assets auctioned off after the debacle of its closing. When Linda Cano, the museum’s executive director, learned of the upcoming “California Reads” program, she tracked down Ron Perisho, the San Ramon collector who bought the photographs. He graciously agreed to loan the museum the collection.

On one hand, it’s great that the photographs are back in Fresno, even if temporarily. It was nice of the collector to loan them to the museum.

On the other, it’s so very sad to be reminded of the travesty of the closure of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum and the fact that its artworks were dispersed. It’s all behind us, I suppose, but I still resent the people who made the big mistakes — most of whom have long since winged their way out of Fresno — in the whole Met mess.

In any case, don’t miss this chance to see these fascinating and beautiful photos by Adams.

There are several more Manzanar events to come on the California Reads schedule. They include:

  • Film screening of “Valor with Honor”: This documentary film recounts the bravery of the World War II Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Q&A and DVD signing with director Burt Takeuchi will follow. 7 p.m. Sept. 8, Clovis Veterans Memorial District Auditorium, 804 Fourth St.
  • “Grateful Crane 1940s Musical Revue”: This concert recreates popular American music of the 40′s especially Big Band and swing dancing. 7 p.m. Sept. 15, Unitarian Universalist Church, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave.
  • “Japanese Americans in Jazz”: Surveys the impact of jazz and swing music on Japanese immigrants. It features the music of the Thirties and Forties and the careers of Japanese American jazz artists. Presented by Larry Honda. 7 p.m. Sept. 18, Woodward Park Library.


Responses to "Ansel Adams: his take on Manzanar"

I can’t wait to see these photographs. We visisted Manzanar last year and the place itself is as much a contrast as these photos. Such a beautiful mountainous area, but so lonely and haunting at the same time.