New Addison Exhibit Reframes Perceptions of Japanese Internment Camps

A handful of Japanese-Americans gather around the baseball field, eyes searching for the ball soaring into the blinding sun. They are frozen, preserved in Ansel Adam’s 1943 gelatin silver print “Baseball Game” as a part of his “Photographs of Japanese-American Relocation Camp in Manzanar, California.” “Baseball Game” is currently on display at the Addison Gallery of American Art as part of the new exhibit “Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams.”

Curated by Allison Kemmerer, Curator of Art after 1950 and of Photography, “Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams” is located on the first floor of the Addison. “Baseball Game” and 49 other silver prints in the exhibition were a result of Adams’s 1943 visits to Manzanar War Relocation Center, situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the desert of California. In 1942, hundreds of barracks were built behind barbed wire and gun towers, serving as housing for around 11,000 Japanese-Americans. The center was in use for three-and-a-half years.

“The Ansel Adams I knew was the landscape photographer who depicts the landscape in a beautiful pristine state… So this subject matter was very interesting because there is nothing ideal about it. It is real life story, and not a great story. I was fascinated because he was often criticized for this series because it looks so positive. All the people are smiling, everybody looks happy and busy,” said Kemmerer.

Adams wanted to humanize the Japanese-Americans at Manzanar. He depicted everyday scenes of people reading the newspaper, working in their own co-op, farming, and having a town meeting.

“He is really trying to create this portrait of a small town in America. Manzanar is just a little small town with a community. He really did purposely avoid any activities that reflected Japanese culture, like certain games they would play or too much Buddhism, to not raise any flags of any of the viewers he was trying to persuade that these people are not a threat,” said Kemmerer.

In “Pictures and Mementoes on Top of Phonograph, Yonemitsu Home,” an autographed photograph, a young man dressed in a military uniform leans onto a framed picture of Jesus on the left. A potted plant rests on a doily, displayed next to an ornamental squash and stamped envelopes.

“That is [a photo of an intern’s] son who is fighting for the Americans in the war. So the irony of these people being in an internment camp when their son was fighting for the country is ridiculous,” said Kemmerer. “So there are things like this where [Adams] subtly is reminding people [internment camps are] ridiculous. It is not just that he is saying: they are just like us, they have children and believe in God.”

Above “Pictures and Mementoes on Top of Phonograph”, an old man sits relaxed on a wooden chair next to a column heater, a tattered book propped up on his lap in “Nobutero Harry Sumida in Hospital.” Two bouquets of flowers decorate the background and various books and trinkets are scattered on the side table.

“[Nobutero Harry Sumida] was a navy veteran, fought for World War I. He grew up in New York and had foster parents who weren’t Japanese. Back then, that mattered so he was perceived as more American. He was in Los Angeles in a veterans hospital and they moved him from the hospital to put him in this camp in the hospital there. That is just how ridiculous the whole thing was,” said Kemmerer.

Adams published a book “Born Free and Equal” in 1944, which included all fifty photographs he took at Manzanar and the stories behind each photo.

The exhibition also included some of Adams’s signature iconic landscapes in the hallway leading to the exhibit hall.

“[In the hallway] is the stuff everybody knows, the idyllic Western landscapes, that is what he is known for and before he had taken the Manzanar photos, that is what he had already become pretty famous for. It is nice for us to be able to show work that people are familiar with and maybe an aspect of an artist that people don’t know much about and maybe never seen,” said Kemmerer.

“Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams” will be on view in the Addison until Winter Term.