Exploring the Legacy of Ansel Adams at Manzanar

The Museum Store Online interviewed Anne Hammond, curator of the exhibition Ansel Adams at Manzanar, about working on this very special project.

The unsmiling face in one of Ansel Adams’s photos is that of an elderly man, Nobuteru Harry Sumida. It’s a simple portrait.

But in the eyes of photography scholar Anne Hammond, it’s a compelling and poignant picture.

In his younger years, Sumida bravely served in the Spanish American War and was wounded while fighting as a member of the United States’ armed forces. But during World War II, the 72-year-old Nisei veteran was viewed as an enemy alien because of his Japanese heritage and was incarcerated at the Manzanar concentration camp.

While at Manzanar, he was photographed by Ansel Adams.

“It’s a terribly ironic statement about loyalty, and at the same time a very dignified image,” says Hammond, an art historian and curator of the exhibition, Ansel Adams at Manzanar.

“The most important thing to keep in mind about Adams’ work at Manzanar is that it is not strictly a work of documentary photography,” Hammond notes. “It is a work of propaganda, in a documentary style. Adams’s aim was to show Caucasian Americans that the Japanese Americans about to leave the camps and find jobs and homes in their communities were hard-working, well-acculturated Americans just like them, to try to counteract the anti-Japanese prejudice of the time. That is why so many of the subjects are well-dressed, in Western clothing, and even smiling. And why on the whole he avoided showing the miserable conditions in the camp.”

“I think this exhibition reveals Ansel Adams’s ethical and moral sense which is seldom appreciated in his (nature) landscapes, although it does underlie all of his environmentalist work,” says Hammond.

For Hammond, the exhibition project, which was created at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, was a natural outgrowth of her longtime passion for photography.

“I grew up in Hawaii, but it wasn’t until I moved to England at the age of 30, and began to study the history of photography that I learned about the documentary work done at Manzanar by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers, Francis Stewart, and Toyo Miyatake,” says Hammond. “When I finished my doctoral dissertation in art history at Oxford in 2000 on Ansel Adams, I had the opportunity to guest-curate an exhibition for the Honolulu Academy of Arts, in 2002, on the photographic work Adams had done in Hawaii. I had seen the photographs Adams took of the Japanese Americans at Manzanar at the Library of Congress but had been unable to integrate that material into the book which resulted from my dissertation, and the idea of a show of his Manzanar photographs at the Academy followed from that.”

“One of the nicest things to come out of this exhibition was that I was able to track down one of the subjects of a Manzanar family portrait by Adams,” Hammond says. “Bruce Tsurutani, who is now an astrophysicist with the Jet Propulsion Labs at NASA, flew to Hawaii for the opening of the show. I am very honored to have met him and heard his stories.”

The exhibition’s travel from the Honolulu Academy of Arts to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles provided Hammond with some added insights into the subject matter.

“The poignancy of the show for me, was to see how different the response to the show in Hawaii was to that in Los Angeles,” Hammond observes. “That is understandable, considering that the wartime experiences of Japanese Americans in Hawaii were on the whole quite different from those on the mainland.”

“In Hawaii, the audience seemed genuinely amazed that Adams pursued this project under the difficult conditions of the time,” says Hammond. “They were shocked at the story of the internment itself, and happy to know that a photographer they had previously thought of merely as an artist of the ‘grand western landscape’ had made the moral choice to try to influence public opinion about it. In Los Angeles, of course, where so many of the audience had been incarcerated either at Manzanar or one of the other camps, the reception was much more subdued. I think people there, although admiring Adams’s positive motivations, saw the photographs as confirmations of the determination that such an infringement of liberty should never happen again.”

Adams’s Manzanar photographs, originally published in a book entitled Born Free and Equal, were not well received in the 1940s. But Hammond is pleased that the images are finding new appreciation and visibility today.

“I think audiences would like to know that the whole of Adams’s book, Born Free and Equal, has been recently scanned onto the website of the Library of Congress, so it can be studied and read page by page online,” says Hammond. “It’s a great resource for anyone interested in his work.”

“If Adams were still alive, I would, as many Japanese Americans have done before me, simply and warmly thank him for doing this project” says Hammond.

Organized by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Ansel Adams at Manzanar includes more than 50 vintage prints from the collections of the Library of Congress; Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona; Honolulu Academy of Arts; and the Japanese American National Museum.

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