Ansel Adams Manzanar photographs reveal social conscious

Ansel Adams is the most famous fine art photographer of the 20th century. Maybe ever. He achieved that recognition from his iconic images of the West. Grand Teton. Yosemite. The Sierra Nevada.

That’s not all he shot, however.

Ansel Adams Manzanar photographs, created in 1943, are a departure from his signature style of landscape photography and serve as documentation of the Japanese relocation camp in California. The series was originally shown in the exhibition “BORN FREE AND EQUAL: An Exhibition of Ansel Adams Photographs,” organized by the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art, History and Science in 1984.

“Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams” can be seen at the Fennimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY from April 1 through July 25.

The photographs document a dark period for America and serve as a reminder “about an unfortunate moment in our country’s history that must be better understood. It also should serve as a warning as to what can occur when emotion and fear overwhelm clarity and courage.” (Quote from Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

It doesn’t take a doctorate in art history to surmise why Adams pictures of the American West, which glorify the nation’s natural beauty, exalt its grandeur, and, in a way, almost seem to justify Manifest Destiney on the grounds that these astonishing vistas were just there for the taking, how could “we” (white colonizers) not take them, are ever-present in American culture while his equally powerful, if for completely other reasons, photos of Japanese-Americans in internment camps are nearly unknown. America is great at hiding its shameful “secrets” while glorifying the version of its history it wants the world to see.

Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984). MR. AND MRS. TOYO MIYATAKE AND FAMILY, 1943. Gelatin silver print (printed later)
Private collection, courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions.

Much of what Adams photographed is the side of America it wants you to see. Ansel Adams Manzanar photos are not. That’s why I had never come across them before and why I’m guessing they’re new to you as well.

Is Adams consciously putting America’s phoniness on display here? It’s duplicity? Playing with the idea of how there’s an “America” the country wants you to see and one it doesn’t?

What we see in these photos are a beautiful, young American family. A beautiful American girl. Beautiful except for their heritage, which at one point in the nation’s recent past, called for them to be rounded up and sent away to live without the inherit freedom guaranteed them by their citizenship and kept under surveillance for the potential of treason their ancestry led the government to believe was inside them. An interesting contrast to today’s homegrown terrorists who actually did attempt to overthrow the government, but have largely escaped any persecution due to their whiteness.

Photographs of Manzanar

Also included in the exhibition are more than 25 photographs, documents and works of art that further record this era. 

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