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Collection Ansel Adams's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar

About this Collection

In 1943, Ansel Adams (1902-1984), America's most well-known photographer, documented the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California and the Japanese-Americans interned there during World War II. For the first time, digital scans of both Adams's original negatives and his photographic prints appear side by side allowing viewers to see Adams's darkroom technique, in particular, how he cropped his prints. Adams's Manzanar work is a departure from his signature style landscape photography. Although a majority of the more than 200 photographs are portraits, the images also include views of daily life, agricultural scenes, and sports and leisure activities (see Collection Highlights). When offering the collection to the Library in 1965, Adams said in a letter, "The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment....All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use." The web site also includes digital images of the first edition of Born Free and Equal, Adams's publication based on his work at Manzanar.

Tom Kobayashi, landscape, south fields, Manzanar Relocation Center

Ansel Adams

Adams, America's most well-known photographer, is renowned for his Western landscapes. Best remembered for his views of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, his photographs emphasize the natural beauty of the land. By contrast, Adams's photographs of people have been largely overlooked. Trained as a musician, in 1927 Adams made a photograph—Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome—that changed his career. This dramatic photograph, along with seventeen others, was published that same year in Adams's first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. By 1940 Adams was an established fine art photographer. His work had been exhibited in one-person shows at major museums on both the East and West Coasts, he served on the board of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), and he was offered lucrative commercial assignments.

War Relocation Program

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear of a Japanese invasion and subversive acts by Japanese-Americans prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The act designated the West Coast as a military zone from which "any or all persons may be excluded." Although not specified in the order, Japanese-Americans were singled out for evacuation. More than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were removed from their homes in California, southern Arizona, and western Washington and Oregon and sent to ten relocation camps. Those forcibly removed from their homes, businesses, and possessions included Japanese immigrants legally forbidden from becoming citizens (Issei), the American-born (Nisei), and children of the American-born (Sansei).

Adams's Work at Manzanar

This event struck a personal chord with Adams when Harry Oye, his parents' longtime employee who was an Issei in poor health, was summarily picked up by authorities and sent to a hospital halfway across the country in Missouri. Angered by this event, Adams welcomed an opportunity in 1943 to photograph Japanese-American internees at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, then run by his friend and fellow Sierra Club member, Ralph Merritt.

Adams had already completed a number of assignments for the military as a civilian, including teaching photography at Fort Ord and photographing Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel, which was used as a Navy hospital during the war. But he was anxious for a more meaningful project related to the war effort. Adams's documentation of Manzanar would become his most significant war-related project.

Baseball game, Manzanar Relocation Center

During the fall of 1943, Adams photographed at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, which was located in Inyo County, California, at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains approximately 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles. This series was a departure from his usual landscape photography. Adams produced an essay on the Japanese-Americans interned in this beautiful, but remote and undeveloped region where the mountains served as both a metaphorical fortress and an inspiration for the internees. Concentrating on the internees and their activities, Adams photographed family life in the barracks; people at work– internees as welders, farmers, and garment makers; and recreational activities, including baseball and volleyball games.

In 1944 a selection of these images along with text by Adams was published by U. S. Camera in a 112-page book, Born Free and Equal. In a letter to his friend Nancy Newhall, the wife of Beaumont Newhall, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Adams wrote: "Through the pictures the reader will be introduced to perhaps twenty individuals . . . loyal American citizens who are anxious to get back into the stream of life and contribute to our victory." The book received positive reviews and made the San Francisco Chronicle's bestseller list for March and April of 1945.

In addition to his work at the camp, Adams photographed the mountains near Manzanar. Two of his most famous landscape photographs were made during his visit to Manzanar, Mount Williamson, the Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1944 and Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, 1944. These dramatic photographs were not included as part of the Adams gift to the Library.

Toyo Miyatake Family, Manzanar Relocation Center

Adams was not the only photographer to work at Manzanar. One of the internees, Toyo Miyatake, had worked as a Los Angeles portrait photographer before he was moved to Manzanar. Although the internees were not allowed to have cameras, Miyatake fashioned one from parts he brought with him in his luggage. Both Adams's and Miyatake's photographs present a positive view of the Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar. In contrast, Dorothea Lange, who had earned her reputation as a social documentary photographer with images of migrant farm workers made during the Depression, worked for the War Relocation Authority photographing the evacuation of Japanese-Americans and their arrival at Manzanar. Lange's vision is uniquely unlike Adams and Miyatake. She photographed the upheaval of the evacuation and the bleak conditions of the internment camps.

"A Grave Injustice"...A Congressional Apology

In 1988, apologizing on behalf of the nation for the "grave injustice" done to persons of Japanese ancestry, Congress implemented the Civil Liberties Act. Congress declared that the internments were "motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership," and authorized a $20,000 payment to Japanese-Americans who suffered injustices during World War II.