Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 16, 2010
Jasmine Alinder Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 232 pp.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780252033988)

This lucid, thoughtful, and remarkably terse study provides extensive insight into a variety of subjects: not only into photography of the Japanese American internment during World War II, but also the functions photography can be made to serve in defining loyalty and security risk in other wars, and the authenticity and force of documentary photography in general. Jasmine Alinder, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, is a sophisticated photography critic able to make complex arguments without the jargon that so often characterizes cultural criticism today. Her book can thus serve as a fine introduction to some of the most discussed issues in documentary photography.

Alinder imagines a visual and ideological battleground over images of the Japanese internment, a nonviolent conflict nevertheless fundamental to wartime. This battle involved three extraordinary photographers: Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Toyo Miyatake. Unfortunately it is a struggle that should have been but was not engaged, although its stakes were of the utmost importance and the utmost relevance today: regarding the violation of constitutional protections on the grounds that doing so is necessary to national security. The battle never happened because the photographs of Lange and Miyatake were virtually unknown until long after World War II. As a result, Americans lost an important opportunity for critical reflection.

In fact, the whole internment story remains unfamiliar to many Americans, so Alinder summarizes it, although not as fully as some readers might wish. Less than two months after Imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the incarceration of all people of Japanese descent who lived near the West Coast. This group constituted nearly all those in the United States of Japanese origin (about 120,000), a population then concentrated in the West. Somewhere between three-fifths and two-thirds of those interned were born in, and were citizens of, the United States. Alinder explains that the pressure to intern arose not from any realistic fear that Japanese Americans would betray the United States but from a long history of anti-Asian racism on the West Coast. They were interned on the basis of their ethnicity; none were ever charged with a crime nor offered a right to appeal. Nevertheless, the internment was almost unanimously supported by American whites, liberals, and leftists, as well as conservatives—Alinder uses Edward R. Murrow as an example.

Alinder devotes a chapter to each of the internment photographers, the first of whom was Lange. Her images made previously for the Farm Security Administration have shaped America’s understanding of the Great Depression. As Alinder points out, from making photography to build support for the New Deal’s programs of helping the poor, Lange was hired by the army to document a government program of incarcerating a victimized group. Alinder might, however, have noted continuity in Lange’s work: through her photography of migrant farm workers and sharecroppers, many of them people of color, she had become anti-racist to a degree unusual in the 1940s and thus more open to questioning the rationale for the internment.

Lange began photographing the lives of Japanese Americans before they were forced to surrender, determined to show how fully integrated into the United States they were. She particularly focused on Japanese American farmers. In doing this, Alinder astutely notes, Lange was attempting to call attention to one of the major reasons that powerful California corporate growers were so eager for the internment: the Japanese had begun to compete with large growers through their truck farming of fruits and vegetables for city dwellers, and growers hoped to acquire Japanese land. Later Lange photographed the gathering of Japanese Americans forced to line up for registration, transportation, and inspection; then the abysmal living conditions at the temporary assembly centers; and finally the inhuman isolation of the one permanent camp then open, Manzanar. She worked under difficult conditions: the camp guards enforced many restrictions on what she was allowed to photograph. Her pictures were unmistakably critical, particularly in showing the crude living conditions in the camps. The army soon fired her and refused to release any of her photos.

After Pearl Harbor, Adams was eager to join the war effort, Alinder writes, but was ineligible for the draft. He therefore greeted enthusiastically an invitation in 1943 from his friend the camp director, Ralph Merritt, who was a photography buff, to photograph at Manzanar. Adams received carte blanche for his work in the camp and made mainly handsome close-ups of individual internees, intended to show them as regular Americans, unthreatening and unresentful about their imprisonment. Merritt encouraged this approach because he had already weathered a protest at the camp and was eager to present to the public an image that emphasized the loyalty of the majority of internees. In fact, Adams had supported the internment and was initially suspicious of the Japanese Americans, Alinder points out, but was eager to make amends. There is a fascinating irony here: Lange, the consummate portrait artist, was not allowed to make portraits; Adams, the consummate landscape artist, primarily made portraits. Like Lange, he did not use the names of those he photographed but often gave their vocations—accountant, electrician—to make them respect-worthy. But by stripping away the context around the smiling faces in his images, Adams made photos, Alinder shows, which hid the reality of the internment and avoided hard questions about its legitimacy and fairness. The viewer would not have noticed that these were portraits of prisoners.

In evaluating Adams’s approach, Alinder might have considered the Japanese American perspective. The majority agreed with the mainstream Japanese American Citizens’ League that they should cooperate fully with the internment and avoid protest or even complaint, thereby demonstrating their loyalty to the United States. To the majority Adams’s approach appeared appropriate, and his photographs have long been popular among Japanese Americans. A minority did not agree, preferring a civil-rights-oriented strategy of resistance. Alinder highlights this difference among internees by examining the controversy that emerged when the War Relocation Authority asked them to sign papers saying that they were willing to serve in combat and to renounce all loyalty to Japan. Having already been deprived of citizenship rights, many did not see why they should risk their lives for the United States. Moreover, those born in Japan were not even eligible for U.S. citizenship, so forswearing loyalty to Japan would have made them stateless. About twenty percent refused to sign and were exiled from Manzanar to a top-security camp at Tule Lake, California.

Miyatake, himself a prisoner in Manzanar, was caught within these disagreements. Alinder’s subtle analysis of his work shows him as both a cooperator and a dissenter. A successful portrait photographer in Los Angeles, he also did modernist art photography. Internees were not allowed to bring cameras into the camps, an indicator of the army’s desire to hide the harsh realities of the camps from the public. (Alinder notes that army authorities even seized Japanese families’ photo albums.) Miyatake could not bear not to practice his craft, however. With extraordinary ingenuity he built himself a camera from a smuggled lens and scrap wood, which he disguised as a lunch box. (The book features a photo of a replica of this camera that stands outside the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.) As the internment continued, some rules were relaxed and Miyatake was allowed to make officially sanctioned camp photographs—for the high school yearbook, at weddings, at baseball games—with the ridiculous provision that after he set up his shots a white camp officer had to click the shutter. But he also made some powerfully critical images; Alinder includes the two most famous. One is a shot of a watchtower seen, ironically, against the stunning peaks of the Sierras—an image that could be interpreted as a direct critique of Adams’s photographs of, and comments about, the beautiful scenery around Manzanar. The other shows three young boys looking longingly through the barbed wire fence (and Alinder does a close analysis of how this photo, despite being “posed” by the photographer, is nevertheless true at the deepest level). I was left wondering why she had not included more from Miyatake. Could it be that these two are the only critical images he made?

Alinder devotes a fourth chapter to examining exhibitions of internment photography and offers a particularly insightful contrast between several at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Under Edward Steichen, MoMA presented the 1942 Road to Victory exhibition, unabashed propaganda for the allied cause. The only Japanese face that appeared in it was that of two Imperial Japanese officials laughing, placed directly under a photo of the Pearl Harbor explosions—a juxtaposition designed to stimulate hatred for Japanese faces in the patriotic viewer. Photographs were used without attribution, arranged to serve the message. Adams’s Manzanar pictures were shown at MoMA in 1944, positioned to stress the upbeat spirit of the internees. By contrast, decades later, when the MoMA photography department under Peter Galassi showed some internment photographs, exhibition design had returned to the pre-Steichen emphasis on photography as fine art, with images meant to be seen as individual works of art, free of any social message or point of view. Thus one of Lange’s most damning images, of a man tagged to be shipped off to a camp like a package, was stripped of her caption so that its context became unrecognizable.

Alinder concludes with a chapter on contemporary photography that attempts to evoke memories of the internment. She features work by Patrick Nagatani and Masumi Hayashi: landscapes of the grounds where the camps stood, or of the markers and signs memorializing the camps. This evocation of memory has potential importance, Alinder explains, because so many of the internees chose not to speak of their camp experience, which they found personally humiliating. I am not convinced that these postmodern photographs succeed. Except for those that have signs or markers—and of those we wonder: does a photo of a marker in any way intensify the emotion of the marker itself?—the landscapes are not distinguishable from any unidentified landscape except for the identifying sign. A close-up of nails on dry cracked soil by Nagatani is an interesting abstraction but without a caption could signal any site where carpentry was disassembled. From my point of view, as a historian who is not a photography critic, these photographs seemed so vague and unreferential as to be vacuous.

By contrast the photographs made during the internment retain their power, and Alinder uses them strategically to provoke discussion and critical thinking. The images need to be recognized as war photography just as much as images of bombings and shootings; they can remind us that wartime casualties occur in many arenas. As Alinder argues, the photographs insist that we remember the long history of anti-Asian racism, and how Americans can become regarded as foreign, as outside the privileged circle of the citizenry even when they are citizens. Above all these photographs function to warn against the attacks on freedom that continue to accompany fears about national security.

Linda Gordon
Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, New York University