Seeing Ansel Adams in a Different Light   

By Mike McLeod 

It is possible to think of Ansel Adams as only a great landscape photographer, which is natural, considering he is one of America's most famous photographers. Literally millions of people have seen his Moon Over Half Dome, and hundreds of thousands own copies of it. But during his lifetime, Ansel Adams also turned his lens in other directions and proved that he is an accomplished documentary photographer. In 1944, he published the book, Born Free And Equal, to both acclaim and outcry. It documented the life of Japanese-Americans and Japanese aliens in the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, and true to form, Adams' work is striking.

Ansel Easton Adams was born on February 20, 1902 in San Francisco. His grandfather was a timber baron, and the family was well off, but Ansel's father, Charles, lost the family fortune in the Panic of 1907. Charles spent the rest of his life trying to regain the family's financial security, but he was unsuccessful.

Young Ansel grew up in the family home near the beach, wandering among the dunes and glorying in the majesty of nature. He did not fare well in school, but his creativity soon exhibited itself ­ but not in the field of photography. At the age of 12, he taught himself to play the piano and read music. He threw himself into this new love and practiced intensely for years. In 1925, he decided to become a concert pianist. This all changed in 1930 when he met Paul Strand, a famous photographer of the day. Under his influence, Adams decided to change his career to photography.

Adams' love of photography did not blossom overnight; it had been slowly growing for some years. In 1916, his family took a trip to Yosemite National Park, and Adams immediately fell in love with its wild beauty. It was here that he took his first landscape photos with a Brownie box camera. Yosemite's appeal was so strong that he returned there every year, and finally in 1979, he showcased this spectacular park in the book, Yosemite and the Range of Light. It sold more than two hundred thousand copies.

In 1917, Adams took a custodial job at the headquarters of the Sierra Club in Yosemite. He often joined club members on outings, and in 1927, he became its official photographer. Later, he joined the board of directors. His talent for capturing dramatic images continued to grow, and in 1928, he had his first exhibition. Two years later, he met Paul Strand, and an American icon was born.

By the evening of the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, the FBI began arresting suspected enemy agents and collaborators, including more than 2,000 Japanese. It was not until the following February that President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which eventually resulted in the removal of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese descent from their homes.

One of those taken was Harry Oye, an employee of Ansel Adams' father. The forced evacuation infuriated Adams, not only because a family acquaintance was taken, but also because most were American citizens. (In fact, two-thirds of the Japanese relocated during the war were citizens.)

Mt. Wiliamson: This print, Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada From Manzanar, 15 x 18.25 in., was sold by Sotheby's in Oct. 2006 for $40,800. It was printed no later than 1948. Gelatin silver prints of the same photo have sold for : $19,200 (printed before 1960); $21,600 (printed in the 1960s); and $6,325 (printed in 1978).

Fortunately, fate intervened in 1944 when Adams was invited to photograph the Manzanar War Relocation Center. A friend from the Sierra Club was the camp administrator at the time, and he extended the invitation, which was immediately accepted. The result was an essay and just over 100 photos being published as Born Free and Equal. The book made the San Francisco Chronicle's best seller list for two months in 1945, but it also drew criticism from those suffering from the loss of loved ones in the Pacific.

Certainly, the photos prove that Ansel Adams was more than just a great landscape photographer and that he had a love for more than just the land.

In Born Free and Equal, Adams was remarkably even handed in his grasp of the situation. He writes:

"Without doubt there were dangerous individuals, groups and nationalistic
organizations among the Japanese prior to Pearl Harbor. Many of these were known to the authorities and arrested and properly interned. Espionage there was without doubt prior to Pearl Harbor, but not one conviction of sabotage or espionage by Japanese-American citizens has been obtained.

"The responsibility of the Military was tremendous; the spectacular victories of Japan, the crippling of our fleet at Pearl Harbor, the possibility of invasion of our west coast ­ all were facts of tragic import, and at the time, were considered more than ample justification of the mass exodus. In addition, there was the threat of public retaliation against the Japanese-American population.the evacuation may have been unnecessary, but the fact remains that we, as a nation, were in the most potentially precarious moment of our history ­ stunned, seriously hurt, unorganized for actual war. Mr. Merritt, Project Director at Manzanar, makes the following lucid statement on the evacuation: 'Was evacuation justified? Evacuation is justified on the grounds that, in time of war, military authorities are obligated to take any steps authorized by the government and necessary to the internal security of the country or for the defense of the country. The evacuation of 1942 has been, and always will be, justified on the ground of military necessity. I have not said that the evacuation was JUST, but that it was JUSTIFIED.'"1

Located approximately 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the Manzanar War Relocation Center had a breath-taking view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The camp itself covered 620 acres, and it was created to be a self-sufficient community.

Inside the fences were: a store or two, barbershops, beauty shops, a hospital, schools, shoe repair shops, a newspaper, offices, meeting halls, libraries, gardens, baseball and football fields, laundry facilities, churches, agricultural fields, chicken houses, a pig farm and a nine-hole golf course. Barracks with tarpaper walls were subdivided into apartments for families, but lavatories were communal, as were the mess halls. Waiting in line was a way of life that happened several times every day.

At its peak, Manzanar housed about 10,000 people. When Adams visited, he reported that about 5,500 lived there.

Despite all the facilities listed above, life was not a bowl of cherries in this arid land. The climate ranged from snow in the winter to summer heat reaching 100 degrees at times. Wind and dust were constant aggravations.

For all their power and beauty, Ansel Adams' photos of Manzanar don't necessarily tell the full story of a people taken from their homes, their businesses, and their lives and forcibly evacuated because of their ethnicity. (Fortunately, the essay does tell the story.) If anything, his photos show a clean and cultured people who were coping well despite the circumstances. This could be any small town in America, except for the guard towers and barbwire fences, which aren't pictured in the photos. When looking at them, one must remember that this is prison.

However, Manzanar was not a concentration camp or a gulag. There were no human skeletons there, as was seen in the German and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. There were no human medical experiments, and families were usually allowed the privilege of staying together. Yet, people were shot and killed in Manzanar and other camps (overall, an estimated less than two-tenths of one percent) ­ some while trying to escape, some during riots, and some from simple hate because of the war. America took a terrible beating much of the time in World War II, so many of the army and security personnel guarding the camps took out their frustrations on the Japanese-Americans.

What is not shown in the photos are the convoluted feelings behind the smiling faces, of their being loyal citizens yet having their rights trampled. What Ansel Adams has captured is what the Japanese-Americans wanted us to know ­ that they were loyal and obedient citizens who were willing to support its government, right or wrong.

Most of the relocation camps were closed in 1944, but one operated until 1946. In 1988, Congress issued an apology for the interment and paid $20,000 to Japanese-Americans who suffered because of it.

In 1968, Ansel Adams received the Conservation Service Award from the Interior Department, its highest civilian honor, and in 1980, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both were awarded for his environmental and conservation efforts. Yes, Ansel Adams was more than a landscape photographer. He also cared greatly about the rights of others. He concluded Born Free and Equal with: "We must be certain that, as the rights of the individual are the most sacred elements of our society, we will not allow passion, vengeance, hatred, and racial antagonism to cloud the principle of universal justice and mercy."2

Ansel Easton Adams passed away on April 22, 1984 of heart failure and cancer.

1 Adams, Ansel, Born Free and Equal, The Story of Loyal Japanese Americans (New York: U.S. Camera, 1944), pp. 34 and 36.
2 Ibid, p. 110.

All photos, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Library of Congress.
Note: other nontraditional Ansel Adams photos can be seen at:, then search "Ansel Adams" in "Photo Library."

Art Appraisals

Ansel Adams.

Evacuees leaving a Buddhist
church. Catholic and other
Christian churches also held
services in the camp.

Richard Kobayashi, farmer.

Itidemi Tayenaka.

A co-op store displaying
pies for sale.

Yonehisa Yamagami,

The Tojo Miatake family in their
barracks' apartment.

Mr. & Mrs. Dennis Shimizu at the door to their barracks'

A dressmaking class.

The Yanemitsu family in their barracks' apartment.

Farm workers harvested much of their own food; Mt. Williamson is in the background.





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