Memories of Manzanar

Photo exhibition, symposium recall the experience of Japanese Americans in WWII internment camps and changing views of Asian Americans, ‘Asianness’

three young boys at Manzanar

Toyo Miyatake, “Three Boys Behind Barbed Wire,” 1942-45 Courtesy of Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studios, San Gabriel

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — After the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans were quickly incarcerated in 10 relocation camps for the duration of World War II. More than 11,000 of them were sent to Manzanar, a camp on the inhospitable eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Four leading American photographers — Ansel Adams, Clem Albers, Dorothea Lange, and Tōyō Miyatake — documented the physical, cultural, and psychological conditions of life in Manzanar, images that will be on display in an exhibition that opens Saturday, March 14, at the California Museum of Photography (CMP) at UCR ARTSblock.

The exhibition, “Interrogating Manzanar: Photography, Justice, and the Japanese American Internment,” continues through July 18 and will include the inaugural Wong Forum on Art and the Immigrant Experience on May 1. The symposium, “Allies, Enemies and Citizens: Refiguring Asianness in World War Two America,” is organized by Jason Weems, UCR assistant professor of art history.

General admission to UCR ARTSblock museums is $3; seniors (60+), students with I.D., children under 12, and members, free. CMP is one of three art institutions comprising ARTSblock, which is located in the 3800 block of Main Street in downtown Riverside. Exhibition hours are available online.

The May 1 forum, featuring leading scholars from around the country, will begin with a 10 a.m. curatorial tour of the photo exhibition. The symposium will begin at 1 p.m. in the Culver screening room. Both the tour and symposium are free and open to the public.

street scene of Manzanar

Ansel Adams, “Manzanar Street Scene Clouds,” 1943 Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The exhibition was made possible by the generous support of Dr. and Mrs. Ernest and Elaine Nagamatsu, Los Angeles; Dr. and Mrs. Bo and Ikuyo Sakaguchi, Northridge; Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; UCR’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; the Earl Lewis Goldberg Family, Los Angeles; and Yuriko K. Livingston, Monterey Park. Additional support was provided by the city of Riverside.

“Interrogating Manzanar” is co-curated by Weems and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, CMP curator of exhibitions, with contributions from Kathryn Poindexter, CMP curatorial assistant. The exhibition and forum grew out of the desire by Weems to honor the vision of the late Voy Wong and Fay Hing Lee Wong, Chinese immigrants and Riverside restaurateurs, whose gift to the UCR Department of Art History created an endowment more than a decade ago and now supports the Wong Forum on Art and the Immigrant Experience.

The May 1 forum will focus on the visual representation of “Asianness” and “Asian Americanness” in the United States during World War II, a topic that connects the approaching 70th anniversary of the war’s end with Weems’ research interests in American art, photography and landscape.

“The exhibition and forum will deepen our understanding of how national image-makers reconstructed the idea of Asianness during World War II,” Weems explained. “How, in the context of a global war, were American soldiers trained to differentiate ally from enemy on the battlefields of the Pacific Theater. How did those on the home front reshape their perception of Asian American citizens and imigrants? These were difficult and pressing issues for the American population at this time.”

Before WWII the widespread and stereotyped understanding of Asian culture and “Asianness” was associated with “yellow peril” and the idea that all Asians and their cultures looked alike and were menacing, Weems added.

baseball lgame

Toyo Miyatake, “Manzanar Baseball Game, 1942-45 Courtesy of Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studios, San Gabriel

“World War II represents a necessary and unique moment of fracture within that model,” he said. “Suddenly every American citizen was being asked to mark distinctions of Asian-ness — the Japanese were enemies, Chinese, Filipinos, and others were allies. Such differentiation was important, but also complicated.” The shift required Americans to see beyond physical traits, beyond mere looks. Paradoxically, however, image-makers continued to rely upon stereotyping in shaping wartime propaganda. The forced internment of Japanese American citizens, even as their sons and daughters served in the U.S. military, illustrates the difficulty of shedding engrained biases.

Photographers Lange and Albers were hired by U.S. War Relocation Authority to document the process of removing Japanese Americans from their homes and relocating them to camps like Manzanar. In fall 1943 landscape photographer Ansel Adams was invited by the Manzanar camp director to photograph the camp and the landscape. He later donated many of those photos to the Library of Congress. Miyatake was a Los Angeles studio photographer who smuggled a camera into Manzanar when he was interned there and later received permission to photograph life in the camp. His grandson loaned 13 images for the exhibition. Two of the Ansel Adams photos — both landscape images from the rugged area around Manzanar — come from the CMP collection, said Szupinska-Myers.

“We hope that people who see this exhibition take away a more humanized sense of what it means to make decisions about the loyalty and freedom of fellow citizens in times of war and conflict,” Weems said. “Questions of the internment of the enemy combatants are very much alive in our own culture today. The camp at Guantanamo exists in a long shadow of places like Manzanar. There are lessons to be learned from history about who we are and what we value.”

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