Why an Ansel Adams Exhibit Took 75 Years to Happen

Japanese-American Internment Camps at Manzanar

In 1943 and 1944, Ansel Adams documented one of the darkest chapters in American history, shooting a series of photographs of Japanese-American citizens in incarceration. The exhibition of these photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1945, titled “Born Free and Equal,” was met with considerable controversy in an America still at war. Due to the outcry, the exhibition closed early; for added measure, the book on the exhibit was cleared from shelves and destroyed.

In 2019, an exhibit of the photographs, along with others from that place and time, was mounted in San Francisco. A fuller description of this story is below.

  • Entrance to Manzanar
  • Manzanar from Guard Tower
  • Manzanar Street Scene

How the Photographs Came About

Ansel turned 40 the day after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the incarceration of Japanese Americans in 1942. He wanted a chance to contribute to the war effort and during the summer of 1943, Ralph Merritt, the director of Manzanar, asked if Adams might be interested in photographing those at the camp. In his writing and speeches, when discussing the Manzanar project and the Owens Valley, Ansel always described the landscape in very emotional and reverential words, “I have believed that the setting of this camp, no matter how desolate the immediate desert surround, was a strengthening inspiration to the people…”

Ansel Adams, Manzanar from Guard Tower, 1943, Library of Congress

In a letter to the Library of Congress in 1965, Ansel 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 [sic] 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 All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.”


The Story of the Incarceration of Japanese-Americans as documented by Ansel Adams

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”

The Controversy in 1945

Excerpted from “The Legacy of Ansel Adams” by Matthew Adams, February 2019

In 1943 and 44, Ansel created one of the only photo-documentation efforts in his career of the Manzanar Relocation Center in the valley east of the Sierra Nevada. The Relocation Center, and the entirety of the Japanese American internment during World War II, is one of the darkest chapters in American history. Ansel Adams and the Museum of Modern Art created and hosted an exhibition, “Born Free and Equal.” that opened in November 1944, 75 years ago, with significant controversy. When the exhibition opened, we were still at war with Imperial Japan. Atrocities committed by the Japanese Army were known, as were those by the Nazi regime in Europe. Fear and anger were palpable.

The exhibition closed early because of the controversy, and the book of the same title, published by US Camera, was pulled from shelves and destroyed. Ansel was labeled a “Jap lover” or worse, but time has shown that he and many others were absolutely correct, that the policy of internment was unconstitutional, immoral, and completely un-American. Not surprisingly, today, when leadership is either willfully ignorant of history, or simply willfully ignorant, the attitudes and conditions are again showing their ugly head.
Many recent commentators have labeled Ansel’s work as propaganda, essentially accusing him of supporting the government and policy. This is a completely inaccurate reading of history. Ansel’s was the only artistic/cultural effort at the time to say “this is wrong.” Given the war and sensitivities, Ansel created an exhibition to show the American public the truth of the Japanese-American — “We are American.”

The photographs do not show the horror up being uprooted and the pain these citizens went through. They show their lives, and how they coped. Not as some foreign culture, but as Americans – family life, working in the fields, fixing vehicles and equipment, raising livestock, reading the paper, playing baseball.

Ansel Adams, Manzanar Street Scene, Winter, 1943, Library of Congress

The 2019 Exhibit in San Francisco

Exhibit at The Presidio in San Francisco, January 18-May 27, 2019, and asked the question,

What does an American look like? Who gets to decide?

Ansel Adams, Baseball game, Manzanar Relocation Center, 1943, Library of Congress

“Putting on a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag.” Takeo Suo

Dorothea Lange, 1942, National Archives

Toyo Miyatake, Three boys behind barbed wire, 1942-45

Members of the Mochida family awaiting evacuation, Dorothea Lange, 1942. National Archives

Members of the Mochida family awaiting evacuation, Dorothea Lange, 1942. National Archives

Dorothea Lange, 1942, National Archives

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Last Updated on February 1, 2023