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Ansel Adams, Entrance to Manzanar, Manzanar Relocation Center (1943). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LOC-DIG-ppprs-00286
At first glance, the Ansel Adams photographs on display at the Canadian War Museum seem like typical works by this American master of rugged, landscape photography. Craggy mountain ranges—a favourite Adams subject—loom large in several of his silvery black-and-white photos. But titles such as Manzanar from guard tower, view west (Sierra Nevada in background), and the rows of barracks at the edges of some photographs, indicate that Nature here is mere backdrop to a different story.
Two Views – Photographs by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank is an exhibition that explores how one American and one Canadian photographer, respectively, chose to illustrate the experiences of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians forcibly relocated during the Second World War. Organized by the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, British Columbia, its presentation coincides with the 25th anniversary of official Canadian and American apologies to citizens of Japanese ancestry for their treatment during and after the war.
Adams—whose iconic works, such as Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, are included in the National Gallery’s collection—was so angered by the U.S. government’s policy towards Japanese Americans that, from 1943 to 1944, he made a number of trips at his own expense to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. There, he documented the stark daily lives of its 10,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans, but also their resilience: farming the land, playing baseball and, sometimes, proudly smiling.
As the Canadian War Museum’s Dr. Amber Lloydlangston, Acting Historian, Art and War, recently told NGC Magazine, Adams’ actions at the time were unusual. “There was very little outspoken comment against the forced relocation of either Japanese Americans or Japanese Canadians,” she says, adding that Adams wanted to show that Japanese Americans were “good American citizens”—sometimes to the extent that he chose not to photograph them wearing Japanese dress or engaged in Japanese activities.
Going all over the camp at Manzanar and inside people’s homes, Adams produced photographs that have been described as intimate and human. Canadian Leonard Frank—who was hired by the British Columbia Security Commission to document the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians from the B.C. coast—took a different approach.
Frank’s photographs often capture the conditions in which Japanese Canadians were forced to live, including several massive buildings that served as a holding area in Vancouver’s Hastings Park. Typically empty of people, Frank’s work has sometimes been criticized as “clinical,” but as Dr. Lloydlangston notes, his images are not without power. She cites Building K, men’s dormitory (formerly the Forum), with its rows of harsh straw mattresses, and Building B, baggage room (formerly the Horse Show building), with its glaring lights and abandoned luggage, as two examples of moving images that powerfully speak to the experience that affected 22,000 Japanese Canadians.
Indeed, Two Views prompts you to think as much about what is in the photographs, as what isn’t, making for a thoughtful—and important—exhibition.
Two Views – Photographs by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa until 23 March 2014.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer, editor, and poet based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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