|Photo of Manzanar resident by Ansel Adams|
Photography is fundamental to the motion picture medium, which is why the recent loss of the veteran cinematographers Haskell Wexler (on December 27) and Vilmos Zsigmond (on January 1) hit Hollywood so hard. But still-photography is important too. Every movie set has its official still photographer chronicling the action, and actors use artful headshots to help them find work. There’s also the value of shocking news photographs, which can inspire moviemakers into telling the story behind the photo. The real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker liked to photograph themselves posing with their weapons, and director Arthur Penn (whose brother was the great photographer Irving Penn) used photography as a leitmotif throughout his masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde.
I’ve been thinking about photography a lot lately, partly because of a disturbing report I heard on my favorite Public Radio station. It seems some nursing home attendants have developed the nasty habit of photographing elderly residents (many in the throes of dementia) with their cell phone cameras, and then posting the often-grotesque pictures to social media outlets. Though their shots are clearly mean-spirited, they often can’t be called to account because photos on sites like Snapchat quickly vanish, leaving behind no evidence of wrong-doing. As hateful as this practice is, what intrigues me is the possibility that a photo can leave no trace. After all, the whole point of photography was once the fact that it created a permanent record out of a fleeting moment. I once saw a highly moving exhibit of the photo-portraits of Civil War soldiers. Before marching off to battle, soldiers on both sides of the conflict often posed for stiff photographs of themselves in uniform, then sent these to their loved ones back home. In many cases, the photo was all the family had left to remember a husband or a son who didn’t return.
For those Civil War soldiers, having a photo taken was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. By the mid-twentieth century, we were all used to being photographed, at least on special occasions. Most people owned simple cameras, but the shots they took generally didn’t stand the test of time. Still, in the right hands, a camera could be a potent weapon. That’s what occurred to me when I saw an important exhibit on the photos shot at Manzanar by one of America’s most admired photographers, Ansel Adams.
Manzanar, of course, was one of the internment camps to which 120,000 Japanese-Americans (most of them U.S. citizens) were consigned after the attack on Pearl Harbor made the U.S. government paranoid about possible sabotage within American borders. Located in California’s high desert at the foot of Mt. Whitney, the Manzanar site was starkly beautiful, but also desolate and unforgiving. The U.S. government sent Dorothea Lange, well-known for her photos of the Dust Bowl, to chronicle camp life, but forbade her to show such realities as guard towers and barbed wire. When her photos were deemed too sympathetic to the camp’s inhabitants, they were suppressed. Fortunately for history, Ansel Adams befriended the camp’s director and from 1943 through 1944 set about shooting memorable black-and-white portraits (of children, adults, elders) for a book he later called Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans.
There was one more chronicler of Manzanar. Toyo Miyatake, a studio photographer by trade, was interred along with his family. He managed to smuggle in a camera lens, built a crude camera body, and at first covertly (and later with permission) captured invaluable images of Manzanar life. It was a harsh life, but one that revealed the stoic nobility of people who didn’t deserve their fate.