Finding strength in Manzanar - The Gonzaga Bulletin: Arts & Entertainment

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Finding strength in Manzanar

Ansel Adams photos document the hardships of Japanese-American internment camps

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Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2014 3:00 am

Two unforgiving hours, nearly 20 destroyed U.S. Navy vessels and more than 2,000 dead American soldiers: These were the costs of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor gave the U.S. motivation to enter World War II. While the military strike is normally cited as America’s cause for declaring war against Japan, the assault on Pearl Harbor also initiated the U.S.’s subtler onslaught against its own people. 

Americans were frightened. They worried that Japanese-Americans might take up arms against them or sabotage their work in the war effort. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a severe decision to move all citizens with Japanese ancestry inhabiting the West Coast into internment camps, forcing them to leave behind family treasures, pets and memories of freedom. 

Eminent photographer Ansel Adams captured these citizens’ confinement at Manzanar, the most widely known relocation camp of the 10 that were established. His work, photographing the daily lives of incarcerated Japanese-Americans, can be found in the Jundt Museum. 

While Adams is generally recognized for his landscape photography, Jundt Director and Curator Paul Manoguerra believes Adams’ portraits are just as wonderful. The exhibition, titled “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams” has expanded Manoguerra’s appreciation for Adams as both a photographer and artist. 

“The goal for the museum is to have an exhibition that connects to Spokane, so people in the community would have an interest in coming,” Manoguerra said. “A lot of professors on campus are already teaching a subject matter related to this [exhibit.] It’s providing an art aesthetic experience that also could be useful for professors teaching here on campus.” 

Out of several areas of study, Manoguerra mentioned that the exhibition would be particularly useful to students interested in photojournalism and history. 

Senior David Ernst would agree with Manoguerra. Ernst was particularly taken by Adams’ prints. Ernst has been pursuing a printmaking concentration at GU. He believes art and history go hand in hand.

“I think great photography is very personal,” Ernst said. “I’m sure we all look back on our own photos that we take. However, historical photographs help us remember important people, places and events. They capture moments in time and sometimes our emotions. The exhibit demonstrates that perfectly; a historical account through beautiful images.”

“Manzanar” incorporates a variety of pieces that build upon Adams’ images. Snapshots from photographer Dorothea Lange, drawings from artist Chiura Obata and wartime propaganda posters are included to aid in the viewer’s understanding of the exhibition. The artwork presented before Adams’ in the gallery provides a framework for the photographs he captured within the internment camp. 

This historical background that viewers receive along with the art is one of the reasons Director Manoguerra selected “Manzanar.”

“I like the way that this exhibition in particular provides … context upfront: setting the scene, remembering Pearl Harbor, giving you a sense of the cause for how the internment of Japanese-Americans was even possible,” Manoguerra said. 

Manoguerra stressed that a central theme of Adams’ art is subjectivity. The exhibit examines the idea of individuals finding some agency within the institutional structures they have been presented with. 

“So, part of what Adams is doing is showing the agency of these individuals in spite of their circumstances,” Manoguerra remarked. 

The Japanese-Americans continued on with their lives, making the most of the situation they were put in. They created schools, churches, clubs and sports teams. Adams’ photos serve as a commemoration and a reminder of their plight and perseverance. 

“As a modern culture,” Ernst commented, “I feel we have lost touch with the fact that Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps.”

He emphasized that our history should humble us.

“Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams” will be available free of charge until March 29.


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