Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Day of Remembrance: Dorothea Lange

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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.

A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center. 7/2/42.

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.

Shizuco Setoguchi is now assisting on the local newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press, at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. Former occupation: Secretary. 7/3/42.

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.

Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center. 7/2/42.

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.]

View of barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority center, showing outside entrances. 6/30/42.

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.

Evacuee boy waiting at the entrance of the Recreational Hall at this War Relocation Authority center. He is anxious for the baseball team to assemble. 7/1/42.

Part of crew working in field no. 4, hoeing corn on the farm project at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. 6/30/42.

Grandfather of Japanese ancestry teaching his little grandson to walk at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees. 7/3/42.

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  1. EO 9066 was used to force out German Americans and Italian American as well. The most famous of whom was baseball great Joe DiMaggio’s father. There were case of German Americans forced off the East Coast. as well. German and Italian Americans were interned. 60,000 German and 3,000 Italian. The way in which they were interned is very different than most Japanese experience. German experience in my opinion was worse. The average German and Italian internment went like this:An FBI Agent arrests an immigrant. No charges are ever filed. The immigrant, mostly a man, is locked up somewhere. No access to a lawyer or a court. The wife and children are allowed no contact. The neighbors are left with the impression that your husband is a spy.Bank accounts were frozen and stay at home mother is expected to keep the mortgage paid and the kids fed. If the mother is an immigrant, relatives would be afraid to help. Kids would get into fights often. Homes were lost. Sometimes the woman was taken and not the man. The most important thing to come out of the German American experience is the Supreme Court case Ludecke v. Watkins. Ludecke was a German refugee who was interned. The government intended to deport him after the war. He challenged the deportation. The Coujrt said, “Whenever there is a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion is perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States by any foreign nation or government, and the President makes public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being of the age of fourteen years and upward, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies. The President is authorized, in any such event, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed, on the part of the United States, toward the aliens who become so liable; the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject” Further, “This Alien Enemy Act has remained the law of the land, virtually unchanged since 1798″ In other words, it has been legal to intern and deport since 1798. Ludecke is far more powerful and dangerous than Korematsu and the Japanese ignore it. Korematsu is relocation, not internment.

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