Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, CA

Mt. Williamson from ManzanarMt. Williamson from ManzanarMt. Williamson from ManzanarMt. Williamson from Manzanar Mt. Williamson from Manzanar by Ansel Adams

“Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, CA (1944)”
by Ansel Adams

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Towards the northern edge of California’s Mojave desert, nestled between the Inyo National Forest and the sands of Death Valley, lies a strip of land that was once home to the Owens Valley Paiute peoples. Thoughout in the 18th century, the U.S. military removed many Paiute people from their lands to make room for miners and ranchers, less than one hundred years later, another group of Americans was forcibly relocated to the valley in their place. In 1942, the United States government detained more than a hundred thousand Japanese-American men, women, and children in remote military camps. More than ten thousand Japanese-Americans were forced to leave behind their homes, communities, and businesses to take up residence in the newly christened Manzanar War Relocation Center, where they would spend most or part of the Second World War.

In 1943, as the American war effort was in full swing, Ansel traveled to Manzanar to photograph the camp. There, he met his friend and fellow photographer Dorothea Lange, who had been photographing the camp since its earliest days, when the rickety tar-paper-and-pine barracks housing internees were all that greeted its new inhabitants. He was immediately struck by the scope of the photographic task before him. As he later wrote, though he had no interest in carrying arms or marching in uniform, he considered his photographic work in Manzanar “about as constructive a thing as anyone could do—and strictly American.”

While Lange’s deeply personal, documentary style was perfect for capturing the tragedy and horror of the detainees’ early circumstances, Ansel saw his artistic role as distinct. Arriving a year after Lange, Ansel was greeted not simply by desolate rows of barracks, but by a community thriving in the most inhospitable of circumstances. In just a year since their arrival at Manzanar, internees had founded schools, a post office, and a clinic. They had planted and irrigated the desert landscape, published a newspaper, and held classes in music and art. They used stones from the nearby Sierra to build a Japanese garden, and created shrines to honor their children serving in the armed forces. The internees’ dignity, patriotism, and spirit in the face of oppression seemed, he believed, to be channeling the indomitable landscape around them. Reflecting on what he saw in Born Free and Equal, a collection of his photographs of the camp, he wrote, “One feels the power of the huge wall of the Sierra Nevada, rising on the west for hundreds of miles, a fantastic granite range supporting the loftiest summits of the continental United States.”

Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada from Manzanar,” shows the “fantastic granite range” in a decidedly new light. In the image, you can almost see the uneasy combination of emotions that must have greeted any visitor to Manzanar—of respect for the detainees, of disgust for their confinement, of awe and horror in equal measure at the vast remoteness of their desert surroundings. Through Ansel’s unique use of perspective, the piled boulders in the foreground—undoubtedly reminiscent of the Japanese gardens created by Manzanar residents—seem to dwarf Mount Williamson’s fourteen thousand feet. In the background, an ethereal beam of light cuts through the looming shadows of the Sierra peaks, perhaps alluding to the flourishing life he observed amidst the harsh circumstances of the camp. In this photograph, Ansel seems to have accomplished the all-but-impossible, capturing not just the physically “loftiest summits” of the United States, but of its patriotic ideals—embodied, ironically, in the very people the government had wrongfully detained.