As I noted in this post, today is the Day of Remembrance marking the anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which condemned Japanese Americans to internment for the duration of World War II. This is the second of two posts in which MAN notes the day. The first post looked at Chiura Obata.
Dorothea Lange took this photograph in Oakland, Calif. in March, 1942, four months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. This is Lange’s caption: “A large sign reading ‘I am an American’ placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war[.]” It is in the collection of the Library of Congress.
A few months after making this picture, Dorothea Lange postponed a Guggenheim Fellowship to take up an assignment from the most unlikely of sources: the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command, which offered Lange a job documenting the internment of Japanese Americans at Manzanar, in California’s Owens Valley. The Army apparently didn’t realize that Lange was a prominent progressive who was actively opposed to internment, and it seems not to have considered that the photographs could confirm allegations of mistreatment and the violation of international law. Lange didn’t just take the assignment, she used it to her own ends, to present Japanese Americans as dignified, resourceful, and human. Perhaps surprised by Lange’s approach, the Army suppressed the 800 pictures, burying them in the National Archives. They seem to have been discovered there by Linda Gordon and Gary Okihiro in 2005 and were published in “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.” At least 209 of the pictures are also in the collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. (It is not clear to me how they ended up there.)
The context of Lange’s Manzanar photographs is crucially important, so here’s an extended excerpt from Linda Gordon’s superb biography of Lange that makes clear the origins of Lange’s interest in the project. (Gordon’s biography is a book that any lover of art, history, photography, the West, or, heck, America should read). Gordon links the pictures to Lange’s progressivism, in particular to her opposition to the way California’s business establishment took advantage of widespread racism to all but steal land from Japanese Americans:
On the West coast, a racial hysteria against Japanese Americans was building rapidly. The first calls for massive internment came from long-standing anti-Japanese groups, big growers, and California politicians. The mass media, building on a century of racism against East Asians, raised the fever by alleging that a Japanese American fifth column was signaling Japanese ships from the mainland, a charge that the secretary of war considered without merit. Lange and [her husband Paul] Taylor suspected something that has since been confirmed: that Associated Farmers, the organization of big commercial farmowners in California, supported the internment in order to gain cheap purchase of Japanese-lowned land. Politicans joined the fear mongering and on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, resulting in the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans….
Lange’s photographs, had they been shown, would have been one of a very few critical voices among the almost unanimous acceptance of the internment by non-Japanese Americans. Writer and editor Carey McWilliams remarked that you could count on your fingers the number of “whites” who spoke publicly against sending Japanese Americans to concentration camps. Even the liberal children’s writer Dr. Seuss contributed a racist anti-Japanese American cartoon… Many of Lange’s friends and colleagues supported internment, and it is a measure of her principles that despite her admiration for the president, despite her antifascism, she did not fall for the government’s assurance that the internment was necessary to achieve victory.
Lange’s pictures are both chilling and heart-warming. Lange is best-known for her documentary pictures, but in practice and at heart she was a portraitist first. (From Lange’s interest in the individual comes the power of all of her documentary work.) All images in this post (except the one at the top) are by Lange, are from Calisphere and are in the collection of the Bancroft Library. The captions under each picture are almost certainly Lange’s.
Street scene looking east toward the Inyo Mountains at this War Relocation Authority center. The children are coming to their barrack homes from play school. Each family has one room to live in in these barracks. There is no running water in the barracks so all the families in one block use a central bath house. The barracks are heated by wood burning stoves. 6/29/42.
Evacuees of Japanese ancestry are growing flourishing truck crops for their own use in their hobby gardens. These crops are grown in plots 10 x 50 feet between blocks of barracks at this War Relocation Authority center. 7/2/42.
William Katsuki, former professional landscape gardener for large estates in Southern California, demonstrates his skill and ingenuity in creating from materials close at hand a desert garden alongside his home in the barracks at this War Relocation Authority center. 6/30/42.
Guayule beds in the lathe house at this War Relocation Authority center. These plants are year-old seedlings from the Salinas Experiment Station, and are ready to be transplanted to the open ground. 6/29/42.
Evacuees enjoying the creek which flows along the outer border of this War Relocation Authority center. 7/3/42. [Ed.: Cropped in accordance with what appear to be Lange's own cropping marks.]
Hospital latrines, for patients, between the barracks, which serve temporarily as wards. For the first three months of occupancy medical facilities have been meager but the new hospital, fully equipped, is almost ready for occupancy. 7/3/42.