Another Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams, one of the world's great photographers, is famed for his breathtaking photographs of American landscapes - Yosemite in particular. He was a man who loved the wilderness and nature, and that love shines through in his images.

But there was another side to him. What is less well known is that, during the Second World War, he took a stand against what he believed to be the unjust treatment of the Nisei, American citizens of Japanese descent who, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, were suddenly uprooted from their homes, farms, factories and businesses and placed in an internment camp at Manzanar.

Ansel Adams decided to use his skills to draw attention to their plight. He went to live in the camp which was, as he described it in his autobiography:

"... a dry plain on which appeared a flat rectangular layout of shacks, ringed with towering mountains. These shacks were not relieved by the entrance gate and its military guards."

View of Manzanar from a watchtower

He went on to describe how these camps came into being:

"With the military's advice President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. I am sure he had no realization of its tragic implications; thousands of loyal Japanese-American citizens were denied their basic civil rights. Unfortunately this decision had the support of a great number of Caucasian citizens throughout the West, who racially disliked the Japanese-Americans as social and economic competitors."

Adams recorded his experiences in Manzanar in the way he could best do it - through photographs ...

Roy Takeno (Editor) and group reading Manzanar paper

Nurse and patients in front of hospital.

Children in the orphanage

Despite what was happening to them, the Nisei remained patriotic

Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Tsurutani and baby Bruce

Ansel Adams was profoundly moved by Manzanar. He wrote:

"As my work progressed I began to grasp the problem of relocation and the remarkable adjustment these people had made ... With admirable strength of spirit, the Nisei rose above despondency and made a life for themselves, a unique micro-civilisation under difficult conditions."

And, as he captured that life in his photographs you can see how his skill shines through - the choice of composition, the way in which he has used lines and diagonals, the way in which the human figures feature.

He went on to write:

"It was very disturbing to witness the arrival of the young army-uniformed Nisei when on leave for a visit to their families. It must have been most difficult for them to be confronted by their parents, incarcerated American citizens - a severe contradiction of the principles for which they were fighting the war."

After his stay at the camp, Adams wrote a book about the plight of these people. Entitled Born Free and Equal, it:

"... met with some distressing resistance and was rejected by many as disloyal. I could tolerate the narrow opinions expressed verbally or in the press, but it was painful to receive a few letters from families who had lost men in the conflict; they were bitter and incapable of making objective distinctions between the Nisei and Japanese nationals."

This was the image Ansel Adams used for the title page of his book:

We know, from notes written on the negative sleeve, that the young man's name is Tom Kobayashi. But we don't know any more about him.

Judging by his age and the cut of his shirt he may well have been one of young army-uniformed Nisei, on leave for a visit to his family.

Ansel Adams donated his images from Manzanar to the US Nation.
They are now in the public domain and the full collection can be seen here

I have just discovered that Ansel Adams's book about Manzanar - Born Free and Equal - can be read, in a full digitised version, by following the link on this page.


Paul Conrad said...

Not a lot of people know Ansel Adams was a documentary photographer as well.

Thanks for putting this out there.

Alistair Scott said...

Thanks for your comment Paul, and on LinkedIn.

Jawahara Saidullah said...

Thanks. I knew about the Nisei and the internments but I didn't know about Ansel Adams book. I will definitely check it out. The photograpsh are just haunting aren't they...and so Anselesque? Lovely.

Alistair Scott said...

Thanks Jawahara. Yes, you can see his eye for composition coming through. Even the guys huddled outside the newspaper office, reading papers ... not a very prepossessing scene with a dusty street, wooden shacks and electricity wires ... he manages to make it poignant and memorable.

Nathan Ciurzynski said...

Cool article. good to know that about him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing this out. Hope you can check out my book about the Masters. I point that out in the book too.

Alistair Scott said...

Thanks Nathan and Matthew.

Yours look like great books Matthew. Congratulations. Check out my Greatest Photography Tips book too.