A street in between barracks at Manzanar. A man is sitting on the front steps of a barrack, and another is walking down the street. There are mountains visible in the distance.

Ask a Historian: What’s the Story Behind Ansel Adams’ Famous Manzanar Photos?

Each month, Densho Content Director Brian Niiya will answer your questions about the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans — the small details of life in camp, the rumors and myths that have become embedded in this history over time, and everything in between. In this edition of “Ask a Historian,” Brian responds to questions about photographers who documented the camp experience and Arizona’s history of anti-Japanese agitation.

Read the answers to last month’s questions about the total number of Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII and terrorist incidents that greeted some returning families after the war here. Have your own questions or comments? Write to us at info@densho.org or leave a comment below!

First up is Steven: 

In one description from a contemporary Sansei artist, he mentions “commissioned photographers like Dorthea Lange and Ansel Adams.” But it seems like Adams was not commissioned to document the camp experience. In fact, he claimed ownership of the images for many years afterwards. I can’t find any information about that point, and he is never mentioned with other WRA photographers. Any thoughts on this?   

Though the incarceration-related photographs of Lange and Adams are often grouped together as by far the two most famous such photographers, they came to their photographs in very different ways. 

Dorothea Lange was among the photographers hired by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to document aspects of the forced removal and incarceration. Largely focusing on Central California during her four months with the WRA, starting in late March 1942, she documented the exodus of Japanese Americans from communities in those areas and their entrance into the Sacramento, Salinas, Stockton, Turlock, and Tanforan Assembly Centers, as well as the Owens Valley Reception Center, which later became Manzanar

Lange’s often stark images of distressed families wearing family number tags while awaiting imprisonment or horse stable accommodations at Tanforan belied the more positive images the WRA wanted to convey, and so the vast majority of her photographs didn’t see the light of day until years later. The first large-scale display of her removal and camp images came in the California Historical Society’s landmark 1972 exhibition, Executive Order 9066, curated by Lange’s former assistant Richard Conrat and his wife Maisie. In recent decades, Lange’s images have undoubtedly been the most used of any of the WRA photographers, for largely the same reasons they were once kept hidden. For more on Lange, see Jasmine Alinder’s Densho Encyclopedia article, as well as Lane Ryo Hirabayashi’s article on the WRA Photographic Section in general.

Adams, on the other hand, photographed Manzanar as a private citizen. A friend of Manzanar’s director Ralph Merritt, Adams first came to Manzanar to take photographs in October 1943 for a planned picture book. He returned in January 1944 to take more photos and to display about one hundred of the images he had taken in October. The photographs were featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams of Loyal Japanese American Relocation Center that opened on November 9, 1944. The companion book, titled Born Free and Equal: Photographs of the Loyal Japanese Americans at Manzanar Relocation Center, was published in June 1944. Adams did retain ownership of the Manzanar photos for many years, but donated them to the Library of Congress in 1965. For more on Adams—and the varied reactions to his Manzanar images—see Nancy Matsumoto’s Densho Encyclopedia article or listen to Campu Episode Four: “Cameras.”

A young man leaning against a wooden fence in Manzanar. His arm is propped up on one of this legs and he is resting his chin on his hand with a pensive look.
One of Adams’ photos from his first trip to Manzanar in October 1943. Original caption: “Tom Kobayashi, Landscape, Manzanar Relocation Center, California.” Photo by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Shelly recently wrote:

I lived in Arizona for a long time and always wondered how many Japanese Americans stayed there after being incarcerated at Poston or Gila River. My guess is very few, considering the number of Japanese Americans in AZ historically and currently, and also how few Arizonans know about this history. However, given that families lost everything back in California or wherever they were from, where the environment was also hostile, did some end up staying in AZ?

You are correct that relatively few Japanese Americans incarcerated at Poston or Gila River settled in Arizona upon leaving those camps. According to the WRA Final Authority Records, 228 left Gila River and 652 left Poston for destinations in Arizona, a total of 780 people. Of that number, 183 were originally from Arizona and presumably returned home, so only 597 who were not from Arizona to begin with left the two Arizona camps for Arizona destinations — fewer than 2% of inmates at those camps.

Because there were only 632 Japanese Americans in Arizona according to the 1940 Census, the addition of 597 from Poston and Gila nearly doubled that population, at least temporarily. But as was true of other inland destinations, the number of Japanese Americans fell after hitting high water marks at war’s end. The 1950 Census shows 780 Japanese Americans in Arizona; presumably many of the newcomers later returned to the West Coast.

Recently vacated barracks in Manzanar in 1945. The buildings are in decrepit condition, with doors falling off their hinges and tar paper peeling off the walls.
Empty barracks at Poston in May 1945. From the original WRA caption: “Some of the ‘blocks’ which were vacated earlier, are already dropping to pieces as shown here. The barracks were of cheap construction, rough lumber, and tar paper and few people thought that they would be occupied for three years.” Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Arizona was one of the states that went out of its way to make sure Nikkei knew they were unwelcome. Perhaps because it shared a border with California, where anti-Japanese sentiment was most intense, Arizona mirrored and even surpassed California in enacting anti-Japanese laws, passing alien land laws in 1913 and 1921. Japanese American farmers in the Salt River Valley were the target of terrorist acts in the 1930s, culminating in a 1934 ultimatum that attempted to force all Nikkei to leave the area. This was followed by a 1935 bill in the state house calling for an even more stringent alien land law. But the coming of war—along with some 30,000 Nikkei at Gila River and Poston—led to more anti-Japanese agitation that culminated in a law passed by the state legislature that prohibited Arizonans from doing business with anyone “whose movement were restricted by law”—another way to specify Japanese Americans without naming them—unless a notice was published three times in a general circulation newspaper of intent to do such business. Though the prohibition on doing business with Japanese Americans was later deemed unconstitutional, the general sentiment was clear to Nikkei. Historian Eric Walz, in his study of Nikkei in the interior western states, wrote of a “direct relationship between the level of ethnic conflict before the war and level of persecution after the war began,” citing Arizona as having “the worst overall pre-war record of Japanese American relations.” He wrote that Japanese Americans leaving the camps “preferred Colorado because of Governor [Ralph] Carr’s encouragement of resettlement, as well as Idaho and Utah.”

Some nonetheless did settle in Arizona, and there is still a Japanese American community there today along with an active JACL chapter. It would be interesting to know how many Nikkei in Arizona today can trace their roots to Poston and Gila River.

By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director

[Header: Ansel Adams photo of a winter street scene in Manzanar, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.]

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