Los Angeles

Two Views Of Manzanar

Frederick S. Wight Gallery, U.C.L.A.

At UCLA’s Frederick S. Wight Gallery, another photography exhibition studies an earlier collection of immigrants to Southern California: Japanese-Americans interned in relocation camps during World War II. Three graduate students, Graham Howe, Patrick Nagatani and Scott Rankin, organized the exhibition “Two Views of Manzanar,” which brings together photos by Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake of a relocation camp in California’s Owens Valley. Executive Order 9066 obliged Americans of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes and possessions for relocation centers in order that U.S. security could be most efficiently maintained. This breach of constitutional rights sent the photographer Miyatake and his family to Manzanar, and brought the sympathetic Adams (whose houseman, a Japanese national, had been interned as an alien to the camp) to report the effects of the government’s outrageous order.

Internees were forbidden to make photographs, but despite this, and because he felt it was his historic duty to document the proceedings, Miyatake smuggled a camera lens and film holder into the camp, and rigged a box camera resembling a lunch pail. Caught by camp police, Miyatake convinced the camp director that he was impelled to record his people’s history and the director allowed Miyatake’s enterprise to continue . . . as long as a Caucasian was along to trip the shutter. The camera, on view at the exhibition, is a crudely elegant amalgam of plumbing fixtures and wood: its lens focuses by rotating it on the end of a threaded drainpipe.

The curators explain in the catalogue essay that yet a third view of Manzanar, Dorothea Lange’s, exists but was not included because Lange concentrated only on the misery exponent of relocation camp life. Although the exhibition is compelling, the curators’ point of view that Adams’ and Miyatake’s approach was to show a people “rising above the predicament” of persecution is astonishingly romantic given the situation and the photographs.

Adams’ work is compassionate; it’s obvious he has a terrific rapport with the internees who are his subjects. But what’s unsettling about his Manzanar photos is the covert message that these people are unduly persecuted despite the fact they conform to American ways; Adams’ work never argues that these people are unduly persecuted—period. With some cynical exceptions, Miyatake’s photographs seem to say the same thing. Cases in point: Adams’ shot of the Jive Bombers, a swing band organized at Manzanar; Adams’ view of an old-fashioned radio with a photograph of a Japanese-American serviceman in front of assorted objects on the top—including a Christian icon; portraits of Christmas celebrants, including Santas; Miyatake’s take of six girls cradling Anglo-faced dolls given to them by the American Friends Society; Miyatake’s portrait of 15 drum majorettes.

Although Adams’ and Miyatake’s response to the indignity are not all that different, there are a few savage contrasts. Both have shots of the chicken coop: Adam’s shows a farmer feeding the chicks, Miyatake’s shows only the chickens, who, like his people, are fenced in and waiting to be cared for by their keeper. These two views of Manzanar are, however, the same: one deals with one’s oppressor by identifying with him.

The exhibition, however moving, fails to mention what became of the internees’ property and money, and how the U.S. rationalized this breach of constitutional rights. The reciprocal of “Both Here and There,” “Two Views of Manzanar” pictures America as the Land of Inopportunity, but it converts a historic debacle into a condition of esthetic transcendence.

Carrie Rickey