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Ansel Adams’ Pictures of an American Relocation Camp During WWII

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Ansel Adams is best known for his breathtaking landscape photos, but he photographed much more than nature during his decades-long career. In 1943, already the best-known American photographer, Adams visited the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, one of the relocation camps the US gathered Japanese-Americans into during World War II.

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, a presidential executive order led to over 110,000 Japanese-Americans being forced from their homes in western states and sent to 10 relocation camps. Adams was angered by this, as someone he knew was relocated, so he jumped at the opportunity to photograph the Manzanar camp when they asked.

With his camera, Adams documented daily life in Manzanar, portraits of those inside, agricultural scenes, and the sports and leisure activities. The project would become Adams’ biggest war-related effort.

Mrs. Naguchi and two children.
Mrs. Naguchi and two children.
Sumiko Shigematsu, foreman of power sewing machine girls.
Sumiko Shigematsu, foreman of power sewing machine girls.
Yonehisa Yamagami, electrician.
Yonehisa Yamagami, electrician.
Fumiko Hirata.
Fumiko Hirata.
Volleyball.
Volleyball.
Girl and volley ball.
Girl and volley ball.
Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background.
Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background.
Baton practice, Florence Kuwata.
Baton practice, Florence Kuwata.
School children.
School children.
Warehouse, M. Ogi, manager; S. Sugimoto, manager of Co-op; Bunkichi Hayashi.
Warehouse, M. Ogi, manager; S. Sugimoto, manager of Co-op; Bunkichi Hayashi.
Science lecture.
Science lecture.
Tom Kobayashi, Landscape.
Tom Kobayashi, Landscape.
Catherine Natsuko Yamaguchi, Red Cross instructor.
Catherine Natsuko Yamaguchi, Red Cross instructor.
Sam Bozono (Policeman).
Sam Bozono (Policeman).
Private Margaret Fukuoka, W.A.C.
Private Margaret Fukuoka, W.A.C.
Joyce Yuki Nakamura, (eldest daughter)
Joyce Yuki Nakamura, (eldest daughter)
Benji Iguchi driving tractor.
Benji Iguchi driving tractor.
Burning leaves, autumn dawn.
Burning leaves, autumn dawn.
Baseball game.
Baseball game.
Chicken farm, Mori Nakashima.
Chicken farm, Mori Nakashima.
Benji Iguchi with squash.
Benji Iguchi with squash.
People leaving Buddhist church, winter.
People leaving Buddhist church, winter.
School children.
School children.
Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, patient Tom Kano.
Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, patient Tom Kano.
Dressmaking class.
Dressmaking class.
Football practice.
Football practice.
Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, mother Frances Yokoyama, baby Fukomoto.
Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, mother Frances Yokoyama, baby Fukomoto.
Hog farm.
Hog farm.
Mrs. Yaeko Nakamura and family buying toys with Fred Moriguchi.
Mrs. Yaeko Nakamura and family buying toys with Fred Moriguchi.
Roy Takeno reading paper in front of office.
Roy Takeno reading paper in front of office.
Bridge game, Nurse Hamaguchi and friends.
Bridge game, Nurse Hamaguchi and friends.
Manzanar from Guard Tower, view west (Sierra Nevada in background).
Manzanar from Guard Tower, view west (Sierra Nevada in background).

Starting in 1965, Adams began donating his collection of 209 prints and 242 negatives of Manzanar to the US Library of Congress. In a letter accompanying the images, Adams wrote:

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 despair 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.

In 1988, the US government apologized for the “grave injustice” done to people of Japanese descent during the war. Adams’ entire project can be found in its entirety on the Library of Congress website.

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