Photos: 3 Very Different Views Of Japanese Internment : Code Switch An exhibit at LA's Skirball Cultural Center features photos that three photographers — Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake — took at the Manzanar internment camp.
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Photos: 3 Very Different Views Of Japanese Internment

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Photos: 3 Very Different Views Of Japanese Internment

Photos: 3 Very Different Views Of Japanese Internment

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The stories photographs tell can depend on who takes them. That was the case at California's Manzanar internment camp, where Japanese-Americans were detained during the Second World War. And exhibit in Los Angeles features pictures of that site from three photographers - two legends of the field and a Japanese-American who was detained there. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Two of the photographers were among the most celebrated of their time - landscape photographer Ansel Adam and the documentarian Dorothea Lange. They both visited Manzanar. The third photographer, Toyo Miyatake was interned there. We'll get to his part of the exhibit in a minute, but we'll start with Dorothea Lange's pictures.

ROBERT KIRSCHNER: You see some of these images of these young children clutching their suitcases and looking forlornly at the camera, not knowing what in the world was happening and why it was happening.

FLORIDO: Robert Kirschner, director of L.A.'s Skirball Cultural Center, where these photos are on display. After Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. forced more than 100,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans, most U.S. citizens, into internment camps, Lange took a photography assignment from the War Relocation Authority.

KIRSCHNER: Here is one of Dorothea Lange's most famous photographs. It shows a storefront in Oakland, Calif., and the owner has put in front of it on a big banner, I am an American. And right above it, you see the sign that it had just been sold because the store owner had been just forced to evacuate.

FLORIDO: Lange followed the evacuees all the way to the camps. In one photo, a bespectacled woman stands in the doorway of her barracks looking despondent. Manzanar looks bleak. In another picture, people walk across the camp as a dust storm blows through. Not surprisingly, when Lange handed these photos over to the War Relocation Authority, it impounded them. But the government didn't reject all pictures from Manzanar.

KIRSCHNER: So now we step into the Ansel Adams section, and it is a pretty dramatic change compared to Dorothea Lange's.

FLORIDO: Adams' photos are gorgeous, in crystal-clear black and white. The vistas of the camp are sweeping. The place that came across as barren and depressing in Lange's photos somehow looks beautiful. But look closer, Kirschner tells me.

KIRSCHNER: Now one that you notice that is very dramatic, he was not allowed to photograph barbed wire, and he was not allowed to photograph the guard towers.

FLORIDO: You get no sense that this was a detention center. There are scenes from a baseball game, kids walking to school, a gathering outside of a chapel, lots of smiles, too, and portraits of camp residents cropped close, so you can see every blemish and stray hair. In Adams' vision, Manzanar comes off as a place where Japanese-Americans, dignified and resilient in spite of their circumstances, built a temporary community in the desert.

KIRSCHNER: His purpose was to photograph the residents of Manzanar, to show that they were good, law-abiding Americans.

FLORIDO: Kirschner says that both Adams and Lange were trying to depict the injustice of Manzanar, but in different ways - Lange by focusing on its harsh conditions and Adams by focusing on the people forced to live there. One of those people was Toyo Miyatake, and he's the final photographer featured in this exhibit. He had a studio in L.A.'s Little Tokyo. In a video at the exhibit, his grandson, Alan Miyatake, explains how his life was changed by interment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN MIYATAKE: They could take whatever they could carry, so my grandfather elected to smuggle in a lens and a film holder because he felt that, you know, as a photographer, it was his duty to record this.

FLORIDO: The elder Miyatake asked a carpenter to build him a small wooden box. It had a round hole at the end to accommodate the lens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIYATAKE: That's where it would screw into, which is the focusing device, you know, to move the lens back and forth to focus.

FLORIDO: Toyo Miyatake snuck around the camp with his secret camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIYATAKE: My understanding is that he would take pictures at either dusk or dawn. All of his pictures in the beginning were just scenic pictures. There were nobody in the picture. It was probably just a safety precaution.

FLORIDO: Miyatake was eventually caught by the camp's director. But instead of punishing him, the official allowed Miyatake to take pictures openly. His photos on display here capture candid scenes - laughter at a picnic, a group of men delivering vegetables to the mess hall. They convey an intimacy with camp life that's absent in Lange's and Adams' pictures. There were also moments of quiet protest in his photos.

KIRSCHNER: This is Toyo's own son, Archie, holding the clippers against the barbed wire to show that, at some point, that barbed wire needs to come down.

FLORIDO: The exhibit is at L.A.'s Skirball Cultural Center through February 12. Adrian Florido, NPR News.

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