Credit: Ansel Adams

January 21st marked the opening of an exhibit capturing a small but important moment in American history; one that must act as a cautionary note in our time of political unrest. Over 50 of Ansel Adams’ photographs of the Manzanar relocation camp, along with a number of other works by artists such as Dorothea Lange are being shown at the Fullerton Museum Center.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy in December 1941 over 120,000 Japanese Americans and resident aliens were rounded up in California, Oregon, and Washington State and sent to a series of relocation camps far from the coast.

There was no evidence of wrongdoing and in fact, they were proud Americans who just wanted a part of the American Dream; one they could not find in their motherland. Instead, they were rounded up and placed on buses to godforsaken sites where tarpaper shacks awaited them. One of these was Manzanar, just off the 395 near Independence, CA. How ironic.

Credit: Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams, perhaps our greatest photographer, was allowed to take photographs of the camp. They depicted daily life. Baseball games, farming, Christian churches and Buddhist temples, gardens and family life. What they did not depict was the watchtowers and armed guards and barbed wire surrounding the camp.

Adam’s photography is astounding. It’s clarity and composition is the same as in his much more famous photographs. In this case he captures the soul of a community and its inhabitants. He captures warmth and dignity in every shot, despite the harsh conditions. He captures their hope and optimism. Children, parents, young men, many of whom went off to fight in the European war as heroes, and older adults.

One of them, the community elder, a fellow named Harry Sumida, was a U.S. Navy veteran crippled by enemy gunfire in the Spanish American War in 1898.  He was taken from his hospital bed in Los Angeles to the camp. He was the subject of several of Adams’ photos.

Adams subtly captures what is supposed to be ordinary life, but which was an extraordinary violation of human rights. He published a book in 1944, “Free and Equal” that stirred controversy about the camps.

Complementary to Adams’ photographs were a number of photos by Dorothea Lange, who had risen to fame in the 1930s with her evocative photos of migrant workers, the “Okies”. In late 1941 and early 1942, she documented the roundups and transportation to the camps of the internees for the U.S. government. These photos were considered so controversial they were classified until 2006. Just a few of them portray the tearing apart of a vibrant community.

Credit: Dorothea Lange

In light of today’s anti-Asian discrimination, this exhibition is doubly important. As art; as history, and as a warning to the future this exhibition achieves all of its goals. Our government has a responsibility to uphold the rights of all Americans. Racism and discrimination are always unacceptable.

Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams

Through April 9th

Fullerton Museum Center 301 N Pomona Fullerton, CA

Matt Holzmann is a businessman who has lived in Orange County for over 40 years. 

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