LOS ANGELES — Over 70 years have passed since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast during World War II, with over 110,000 unjustly incarcerated in ten American concentration camps, and other confinement sites.
Since that time, the most famous photographs of the Japanese American incarceration experience are attributed to names such as Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Toyo Miyatake, who was incarcerated at the Manzanar concentration camp in California’s Owens Valley.
Miyatake’s photos are considered by many to best depict the harsh conditions that the incarcerees had to endure, as well as their strength of character, and their determination to overcome their plight.
To be sure, Miyatake’s photos are also famous because his photographs were initially taken covertly—cameras were considered to be contraband at Manzanar. Miyatake smuggled a lens and a film holder into camp, had a camera built, disguised as a bento (lunch) box, containing the film holder and lens, which was mounted on the end of a threaded drain pipe so it could be focused.
But with the publication in August of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration In World War II With Photographs By Bill Manbo, Miyatake’s photographs are no longer the only ones available that were taken by a former incarceree.
Indeed, Colors of Confinement contains 65 never-before published photographs, shot by Bill Manbo on color slide film (for those old enough to remember slides and slide projectors), while he was behind the barbed wire at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming.
Heart Mountain incarceree Bacon Sakatani, who has been active in efforts to preserve, protect and interpret the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp for many years, brought these photos to the attention of Professor Eric L. Muller, who is Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and Director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Faculty Excellence.
Muller, the author of American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II, and Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II, was astounded by the photos.
“I learned about these photographs from Bacon Sakatani, a former internee with whom I was working on the development of the core exhibit at the new Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center in Wyoming,” Muller said in an interview provided by the University of North Carolina Press. “Bacon sent me an email with the image that is now on the cover of Colors of Confinement. I was dumbstruck.”
“At that point I did not even know that the technology for color photography existed in 1943,” Muller added. “I knew immediately that these images had the potential to reshape our visual understanding of this chapter of American History.”
Back in 1943, color slide film was a technology that was just seven years old, and it sets Manbo’s photographs apart from the rest, which are all in black and white.
“The most obvious thing that distinguishes Bill Manbo’s photographs is that they are in color,” said Muller, editor of Colors Of Confinement. “We are accustomed to thinking of the internees’ lives unfolding in black and white, but the vibrant colors of these images remind us that these injustices took place in a world that looks very much like the one we see out our own windows.”
What also distinguishes Manbo’s photographs from the rest is that they are a cross between Miyatake’s photos, which, as stated earlier, are considered to provide an honest, accurate depiction of some of the harsh condition in camp, and those of Adams, which seem to be rather sterile, in comparison.
“Another thing that distinguishes these photographs is how they capture a broader range of Japanese American cultural life behind barbed wire than we are accustomed to seeing: everything from pick-up baseball games and Boy Scouts to judo matches and kimono-clad dancers,” Muller noted. “Bill Manbo was a hobby photographer who used his camera both to create a semblance of normalcy in his life and to document the camp.”
“Bill Manbo had several kinds of photos he liked to shoot,” Muller added. “He liked doing portraits, mostly of his family, against various backdrops around camp. He loved shooting at dawn and dusk to capture subtleties of light and color in the landscape surrounding him—no easy task with the Kodachrome slide film of the day. And, like any hobby photographer, he enjoyed taking pictures of public events and celebrations. He shot with a 35 millimeter Zeiss Contax camera and a homemade tripod that he made with wood scraps lying around camp and hardware that he ‘re-purposed’ from fixtures in one of the camp’s latrines.”
Manbo’s favorite subject, which readers will quickly see, was his son, a young boy at the time. But even while photographing his son, Manbo had more on his mind.
“What parent does not take a picture of his or her young child eating an ice cream cone or playing with a little friend? This is one of the most basic ways in which we document childhood, for ourselves and for our children,” said Muller. “Yet here, we know that there is more going on: the father also positioned his son for portraits with his little hands gripping the barbed wire fence that encircled the camp. One senses a slightly desperate quality to these otherwise ordinary photos of ice cream and marbles—they are an attempt, not to document the ordinary moments of childhood, but to create a visual record of normality in the most abnormal of childhood circumstances.”
As Muller noted, that Manbo’s photographs were taken on slide film was fortunate, to say the least.
“The key to the survival of these images is that they are slides,” Muller stressed. “Had they been prints, they would have faded and degraded long ago. As slides, boxed up in a closet through the decades, they retained the brilliance of their color.”
Indeed, with today’s technology, the slides could be easily scanned, converting them into digital photographs…protected and preserved further while making them available for publication.
Manbo’s stunning, gorgeous photographs are accompanied by essays that provide additional background and context.
Muller’s opening essay provides an overview of the camp experience, and Sakatani writes of his own experiences as a Heart Mountain incarceree, while Jasmine Alinder and Lon Kurashige examine and comment on the photographs in detail, providing even greater context and much to think about, almost forcing the reader to look at each photo again, this time, with a much more critical eye, and certainly, with more questions about them, and the history behind them.
Muller, Eric C. (Ed.) (August 13, 2012). Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, With Photographs By Bill Manbo. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University Of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3573-9.
Editor’s Note: Muller’s comments were excerpted from: A Conversation With Eric L. Muller, editor of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, with photographs by Bill Manbo (University of North Carolina Press published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Fall 2012).
The views expresssd in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
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