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Photography Review

Let’s be honest, Ansel Adams’s images of a WWII internment camp are propaganda

Ansel Adams’s “Manzanar from Guard Tower.”
Ansel Adams’s “Manzanar from Guard Tower.” Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

ANDOVER — In Spanish, “manzanar” means “apple orchard.” It’s also the name of a desolate location in eastern California, at the base of the Sierra Nevada. How desolate? Desolate enough to be the site of one of the 10 “relocation centers” — a bureaucratic coinage of anodyne genius — where 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent were forcibly removed during World War II. Most of them were US citizens. Eleven thousand people, a community the size of Tyngsborough, lived at Manzanar.

The other camps were Gila River, Ariz.; Granada, Colo.; Hearth Mountain, Wyo.; Jerome, Ark.; Minidoka, Idaho; Post, Ariz., Rohwer, Ark.; Topaz, Utah,; Tule Lake, Calif. If Manzanar is the best known, that’s because Ansel Adams went there. He visited four times in 1943, at the invitation of the camp director, a friend, to take photographs. Fifty of them are in “Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams.” The show runs at the Addison Gallery of American Art, at the Phillips Academy, in Andover, through Dec. 31.

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In 1965, Adams donated a complete set of negatives and prints to the Library of Congress. “The purpose of my work,” he wrote, “was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment.”

“Potato Field” showed people working in the field against the vast backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.
“Potato Field” showed people working in the field against the vast backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.Library of Congress

The images are at once moving, as Adams intended, and disquieting, as he did not.

What’s moving about them is the great injustice Adams refers to. Several of these photographs situate the camp topographically, and the sense of annihilating space is overwhelming. We commonly refer to distant places as being “in the middle of nowhere.” Manzanar really was in the middle of nowhere. That was how the federal government wanted it.

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“Birds on Wire, Evening,” the first image on display, conveys a different sort of annihilation. The dramatic lighting and the cruciform shape of the telephone pole that the birds rest on evoke Golgotha. That’s no accident. The history of photography has known no more exacting maker of images than Ansel Adams.

What’s disquieting is how reflexively upbeat so many of the other images are. Adams wanted to show what good Americans the people at Manzanar were: how much they were like everyone else. To do that, he emphasized the “positive” aspects of life there. Most everyone looks chipper, can-do. People smile a lot, and why wouldn’t they? We see a baseball game, a science class, a town meeting, a Sunday school class, a camp newspaper. Its name was the Manzanar Free Press. Even the kids in the orphanage look happy. In a nicely meta touch, we see Manzanar residents looking at a display of Adams’s photographs of them. Add a picket fence and malt shop. Ignore the dust storms. The camp could have been built by MGM for “Andy Hardy Gets Interned.”

In 1944, Adams’s photographs were published as a book, “Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans,” and shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Nativists took offense. They saw Adams’s work as a slur on the war effort. He was a “Jap lover.”

Today the photographs may give offense for a very different reason: Adams’s approach is so clearly tendentious and patronizing. Propaganda, even in the best of causes, is still propaganda. What once may have looked subversive and unpatriotic to some, now looks hokey and condescending.

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Adams’s pursuit of uplift comes across most clearly in the show’s dozen portraits. Most are tight close-ups: a nurse, an artist, military personnel, a young man with a cigarette holder jauntily clenched between his teeth (shades of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who signed Executive Order 9066, which consigned Japanese Americans to internal exile). They’re more types than individuals.

The one exception is the portrait of Adams’s fellow photographer, Toyo Miyatake.

In “Toyo Miyatake, Photographer,” Ansel Adams took a portrait of the fellow photographer who was interned with his family at Manzanar.
In “Toyo Miyatake, Photographer,” Ansel Adams took a portrait of the fellow photographer who was interned with his family at Manzanar.Library of Congress

There’s also a photograph of Miyatake with his family. Miyatake’s own Manzanar photographs — camp regulations initially forbade internees using a camera — make for a telling contrast. His images and Adams’s share a sympathetic point of view. But Miyatake’s have a subtlety, complexity, and depth of feeling that, inevitably, Adams’s can’t begin to match.

Accompanying “Manzanar” is a selection of 18 Adams photographs with subjects more typical for him. Some of the images are very familiar: “Aspens, Northern New Mexico”; “Half Dome, Winter, Yosemite Valley”; “Mount McKinley, Alaska.” Others are less so. A soaring saguaro cactus hangs near a soaring Mormon temple. Their skyward reach reminds us how often exaltation defines Adams’s most characteristic work. It’s nowhere to be found in “Manzanar.” Adams understood that it had no place there. He understood that equally as citizen and artist.

MANZANAR: Photographs by Ansel Adams

Addison Gallery of American Art, 180 Main St., Andover, through Dec. 31. 978-749-4015, www.andover.edu/Museums/Addison

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Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.