In 1943, the landscape photographer Ansel Adams traveled to the base of the Sierra Nevada to photograph Manzanar—one of the ten internment camps that together detained 120,000 Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Invited by the camp director to document life there in an effort to jolt waning wartime morale, and forbidden from photographing the stifling militarism of the camp’s infrastructure, Adams trained his lens on the resilience of its citizens.
When the images were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art a year later and published in a volume ironically titled “Born Free and Equal”—a nod to the cruelty of a nation interning its own citizens, many of whom had been born on American soil—Adams was accused of undermining the war effort. In response to the controversy, the exhibition shuttered early; all unsold books were destroyed. Adams donated his images to the Library of Congress in 1965, where they remained largely hidden from public view until the late 1970s. They are currently part of a traveling exhibition touring smaller museums across the country.
Viewed today, these images testify how propagandistic efforts to sanitize the American past instead reveal the brutal histories that texture its very landscape. Adams took this photograph from a guard tower, a hidden detail that haunts an otherwise placid scene. For the Japanese Americans living in these concentration camps, life was monotonous. Baseball was a structured way to pass the time. “Putting on a baseball uniform,” recalled the Nisei baseball player Takeo Suo, “was like wearing the American flag.”
Tausif Noor is a critic and doctoral student at the University of California Berkeley, where he studies modern and contemporary art history. His writing on art, literature, and visual culture appears in Artforum, frieze, the Nation, the New York Times, and the White Review, as well as in artist catalogues and various edited volumes.