I had a chance to head up to the humble but surprisingly interesting and informative Loveland Museum a few days ago to catch a special exhibit of famed photographer Ansel Adams’ WWII photos of the Manzanar “relocation” camp. It was both interesting and distressing. When Japan attacked the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the United States immediately declared war on Japan and fired up the enormous war machine that was America during the worst of World War II.
Xenophobia flared up in the country (a precursor to the anti-communist zeal of the McCarthy era) and even though J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI insisted that any potentially dangerous Japanese spies in the United States were already under surveillance, the country decided to imprison Japanese living in the United States, along with Japanese American citizens. This primary happened in California but many of the Western states joined in this alarming process, and with almost no warning, Japanese residents of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and points in between were piled onto busses and sent to live in crude, hastily assembled villages that resemble military barracks more than anything else. WIth the addition of fences, barbed wire, and 24×7 security. There was no point in seeking a pass to visit the local town because none would have been granted and the nearest towns were dozens of miles away; these camps were in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
In fact, one of these Relocation Camps was located outside the tiny (population 450) city of Grenada in Southeast Colorado, a site that was razed clear many years ago but is slated to have some of its buildings reconstructed as part of a future State Park to memorialize and educate people about Camp Amache.
Not America’s finest hour, but what we don’t realize from reading the historical perspective is that there were people fighting the existence of the relocation camps and rallying for the residents to be freed up and allowed to return to their normal lives. One person who was so passionate about it that he published a controversial book about the camps was Ansel Adams. A giant in the green movement (and founder of the Sierra Club), his book Born Free and Equal was published in 1944, during the height of WWII.
The traveling photography exhibit currently at the Loveland Museum is based on the photographs he shared in this book, along with additional background images and information. To set the scene, imagine you’re Japanese American and wake up one morning to this poster being plastered on the walls of your neighborhood:
I’ve lived in many of the areas that were affected by this; If England had declared war on America would English-Americans have been sent to similar camps? Or Muslims? Or Jews?
Here’s the info about Ansel Adams and his photographs, as presented as part of the exhibit:
Rather than share more of my thoughts on this heinous moment in American history, I’ll let a few of Adam’s brilliant photographs that caught my eye as I viewed the exhibit speak for themselves…
Worth noting here is that Manzanar was situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and more than 10,000 Japanese were detained in the camp for more than two years during World War II. Many, however, volunteered for military service and were allowed to leave to help protect their country.
Could we do something similar in the event of another world war? I’d like to think that we’ve evolved as a nation since then, but fear makes otherwise smart people do stupid things, so who knows…
Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs, at the Loveland Museum, Sept. 30, 2023 – Jan. 14, 2024. $7/adult special exhibit admission. 503 N. Lincoln Ave. Loveland, CO 80537. (970) 962-2410. https://www.thelovelandmuseum.org/