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Photos Document Japanese-American Wartime Internment

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Manzanar Relocation Center, California / photograph by Ansel Adams. 1943.
Manzanar Relocation Center, California / Photograph by Ansel Adams. 1943.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. This annual recognition of Asian Pacific Americans’ contributions to the American story started with a 1977 congressional resolution calling for a weeklong observance. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush extended it to the entire month of May.

At the Library of Congress, Asian American Pacific Islander resources include books, oral histories, personal papers, community newspapers and many other materials housed throughout Library divisions. Ansel Adams’s World War II photographs of Japanese-American internment in Manzanar, Calif., are a notable inclusion. They bear witness to a sad chapter in our nation’s history – but an important one to document.

Renowned for his images of western landscapes, Adams donated this rare and stunning set of photographs to the Library between 1965 and 1968, placing no copyright restrictions on their use. The complete collection is available through the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Several months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced from their homes on the West Coast and sent to “relocation centers” by the United States government, which had declared war on Japan.

Toyo Miyatake / Photograph by Ansel Adams. 1943.
Toyo Miyatake / Photograph by Ansel Adams. 1943.

Documents accompanying the Adams online photo collection say the evacuation “struck a personal chord” with Adams after an ailing family employee was taken from his home to a faraway hospital. When Ralph Merritt, director of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, invited Adams to document camp life, he welcomed the opportunity. He shot more than 200 photos, mostly portraits, but also scenes from daily camp life with the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains often visible in the background.

One striking portrait features Toyo Miyatake, a fellow photographer and internee whose story of resolve under hardship is noteworthy. Miyatake operated a successful photography studio in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood before the war. He smuggled a lens into Manzanar and constructed a makeshift camera – internees were not permitted to have cameras in the camp. When Miyatake was discovered, he was allowed to continue and took about 1,500 photographs over more than three years.

Miyatake’s son Archie has said that his father felt a duty to document camp life “so this kind of thing will never happen again.” Toyo Miyatake and Adams became friends, and Adams used Miyatake’s camp darkroom.

Like Adams, Miyatake shot photos of daily life. Some reviewers have noted an edgier tone to Miyatake’s pictures, however. The mountains around the camp often appear menacing in contrast to Adams’s more pristine views. And one well-known Miyatake photograph shows three boys standing behind barbed wire, even though camp rules prohibited photos of barbed wire or guard towers.

Toyo Myatake / Photograph by Ansel Adams. 1943.
Toyo Myatake / Photograph by Ansel Adams. 1943.

Miyatake returned to Los Angeles with his family in 1945, reopening his Little Tokyo studio and achieving acclaim as a chronicler of the Japanese-American community. He died in 1979. In 2011, a street in Little Tokyo was named after him.

As for Ansel Adams, he told an interviewer in 1974 that “from a social point of view,” his Manzanar photos were the “most important thing I’ve done or can do, as far as I know.”

For more resources on Asian Pacific American cultural and historical heritage, visit   

Comments (2)

  1. Thank for providing this important information. I have posted it on my Facebook page and will forward the links to many friends and make the Seattle Densho Project aware of this collection.

  2. The information was great now I can do my project while knowing something

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