Once-Suppressed Dorothea Lange Photos Capture Wartime Paranoia
May 10, 2017
When I visited the site of the Manzanar War Relocation Center during the foggy months following Sept. 11, 2001, most of the original buildings had already been erased from the landscape, so my most vivid memory is the feeling that I was living through a defining moment in history not unrelated to the Japanese-American internment. The terrorist attacks had been compared to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and more than a thousand innocent Muslim-Americans were being detained simply because of their ancestry or religion.
We are now living in another time that history books will closely scrutinize. As in 1942 and 2001, there are calls to ban, surveil, and distrust those who look similar to combatants, refugees, or migrants. This is fortuitous timing for the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, a major retrospective of the great American documentary photographer who recorded, with empathy and sensitivity, the plight of migrants, dust bowl refugees and victims of racial hatred. The exhibition spans Lange’s career, but her work during World War II is worthy of special attention.
Soon after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, paving the way for the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) inexplicably hired Lange to photograph the removal proceedings and detentions. It’s possible the WRA was inspired by her powerful Depression-era documentation for the Farm Security Administration. But this earlier work was critical of social injustices, and Lange brought that perspective to the internment process, which she opposed.
Politics of Seeing curator Drew Johnson is not aware of any statements by Lange explaining why she took the assignment. “I think she thought she could somehow reveal the truth,” he explains, but she “ended up being shadowed by burly guards” who restricted what she could photograph. In the end, Johnson says, Lange regretted terribly that she didn’t accomplish what she set out to do.
The International Criminal Court now classifies the “deportation or forcible transfer of population” as a crime against humanity. When perpetrated against a population because of their ethnicity, this is the dictionary definition of ethnic cleansing, though this term is often avoided in favor of more morally ambiguous language.
Lange’s photographs of the roundups are among her most damning, clearly exposing Executive Order 9066 as an act of ethnic cleansing. And though Lange is recognized for her portraiture, one grim still life captures the nature of the deportations. Suitcases, bundles, boxes and wicker baskets are piled on the curb in front of a house. One box reads “White King Quick Dissolving Soap,” another “Gimbals Candy,” and two plain boxes have “Nakaso” written on them, presumably the owners’ family name.
The photograph was taken at 1117 Oak Street in Oakland, the site of a “civil control station,” where detainees were processed before being relocated to temporary, and then permanent, prison camps. (The Oakland Museum of California is now directly across the street from this address.)
JapaneseRelocation.org lists a family of six from Alameda with the name Nakaso. In 1942, Iku Nakaso was a 55 year-old widow who worked in a library. She lived in the United States for more than half her life, and all of her children were born here. Those boxes were all of Nasako’s life that was allowed to follow her to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.
In an overhead photograph from the same day, men and women wearing formal suits, coats and hats board a bus for Tanforan Racetrack, a temporary assembly center in San Bruno. Their attire, contrasted with the conditions we now know they endured, suggests either optimism or defiance in the face of persecution. The racetrack site is now marked by a commemorative garden, a statue of the famous racehorse Seabiscuit, and a shopping mall.
Scenes like these occurred all across the western United States, as detainees were shuffled from place to place while the government constructed permanent camps. Lange tirelessly zig-zagged across California photographing the deportations in San Francisco, Oakland, San Leandro, Sacramento, Lodi, Salinas, Turlock, Fresno and elsewhere. According to historian Linda Gordon, Lange began photographing the removal proceedings on March 22, 1942, and took only three days off in April and May.
Lange was permitted to photograph only one of the ten permanent camps, Manzanar, which was situated in a hot and dry valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. She depicted the camp in a photograph that features three rows of barracks set against Mt. Williamson and a bright but cloud-filled sky. The caption indicates an ongoing dust storm, which explains a slight haze in the image. The camp looks like a far-flung military outpost, except for two children running down the dusty avenue between rows of barracks. The children’s playfulness heightens rather than obscures the fact that they are living in a prison built for families.
Perhaps predictably, the WRA saw subversion in even Lange’s most innocuous-looking photographs and suppressed her work during the war. Though the National Archive acquired the photographs and they were available to researchers, the images were rarely utilized and not actively distributed. Of the several hundred photographs Lange took in 1942, almost all remained unseen until 1972, when 27 of the WRA images were included in a traveling exhibition that opened simultaneously at the de Young and Berkeley Art Museum. The collection was digitized in 1998. Now, 75 years after they were first taken, Lange’s photographs are easily accessible — appearing in publications, exhibitions and across the internet.
Drew Johnson notices Lange’s WRA images cropping up in current conversations online. This, he says, is a sign that her work is “entering the consciousness” and affecting contemporary debates about immigration. Her own regrets notwithstanding, Lange left us with one of the most important photographic records of the Japanese-American deportations, potent warnings against wartime paranoia and racial hatred.