Then They Came For Me @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 104 black and white photographs by roughly 14 photographers (some unidentified), framed in black and matted, and hung against almond colored walls in a series of rooms on the main floor of the museum.

The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the number of works on view and their dates as background:

  • Unidentified: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1914, 1917, 1918, 1934, 1944, , 1948, 1954
  • Dorothea Lange: 30 gelatin silver prints, 1942
  • Clem Albers: 16 gelatin silver prints, 1942
  • Al Brick: 1 gelatin silver print, 1941
  • Russell Lee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • Ansel Adams: 16 gelatin silver prints, 1943
  • Fred Clark: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • Toyo Miyatake: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1944
  • Tom Parker: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1942, 1943
  • Hikaru Carl Iwasaki: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1944, 1945
  • Robert H. Ross: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1945
  • Charlie Mace: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1944
  • James Numata: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1949
  • Jon Yamashiro: 4 gelatin silver prints, 2008, 2009

The show also includes:

  • Videos: “Our Journey to America”, “The Day We Were Picked Up”, “Where We Were Taken”, “Why We Resist”
  • 3 vitrines: 2 newspapers, 2 books, 1 comic strip, 3 magazines, 2 postcards, 1 “hunting license”, 2 alien registration cards, 1 poster, 6 black and white photographs (5 taken by George and Frank C. Hirahara), 2 ID tags, 1 notice, 1 watercolor, 2 painted rocks, 1 booklet, 1 yearbook, 1 shell pin, 6 handpainted birds, 2 postcards, 5 color photographs (taken by Bill Manbo)
  • Mine Okubo: 4 drawings

The show is divided into the following sections: Immigration, Farming and Life Before the War, Generations, Executive Order 9066, Eviction and Forced Removal, WRA Photography and Dorothea Lange, The Camps, Temporary Detention Centers, Incarceration Camps, Ansel Adams’s View, Toyo Miyatake’s View, A Semblance of Normal Life, Mine Okubo and Citizen 13660, Work Assignments, Ways to Leave, A Call to Service, Draft Resistance, Loyalty Oaths and Tule Lake, Closing of the Camps, Resettlement, Immigration and Naturalization Reform, Remembering the Past, Redress and Reparation.

Organized by Alphawood Exhibitions, which mounted this show from June 29, 2017-November 19, 2017 at Alphawood Gallery in Chicago, it has been installed at ICP by assistant curator Susan Carlson. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Americans have generally agreed since the 1960s that the round up of approximately 120,000 Japanese-American citizens and legal residents after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and their forcible removal to detention camps without due process, was among the most shameful violations of civil rights in the nation’s history.

FDR may have pulled the country out of the Great Depression. But he also committed this legal crime, signing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942—over the strenuous objections of his wife, Eleanor. The U.S. Supreme Court validated the E.O’s constitutionality with a 6-3 decision in 1943. Not until 1988, when President Reagan issued a formal apology and offered reparations of $20,000 to detainees or their survivors, did the country finally begin to make amends.

The story has remained obscure, though, in its details. How many people know that these loyal taxpayers were forced to sell their businesses in 1942, at steep discounts, and had little hope of recovering them after 1945? Or that the Relocation Centers were located almost entirely in the West and South, safely beyond the reportorial eyes of the Eastern and Midwest newspapers? Or that California attorney general (and future Supreme Court Chief Justice) Earl Warren was rabidly anti-Japanese, testifying before Congress that immigrants had settled near defense plants in order to blow them up?

This exhibition at ICP does a commendable job of sketching in the historical shadows and humanizing the injustice. Vitrines contain original documents from the period, including Executive Order 9066 and Exclusion Order posters, which were posted all over Western towns and cites in 1942, instructing citizens on the evacuation process, often with a deadline of only one week. The walls are lined primarily with studio and documentary portraits of couples and families before, during, and after their ordeal.

The first room, opening with a section on “Farming and Life Before the War,” depicts the attachment of Japanese-Americans to the land and their industry cultivating it. One of the first photographers to note what was happening—and to object to it—was Dorothea Lange. Thirty of her black-and-white photographs, mainly intimate portraits of Californians ensnared in this government net, are here. Although hired by the War Relocation Authority, a documentary unit created for propaganda purposes, she was entirely sympathetic to the plight of the incarcerated and furious with Roosevelt. Her nervous breakdown in 1942 may well have been caused by the sight of innocent people being loaded on trains.

Archival material that attests to the mood of the time. Helping citizens to identify the enemy was a high priority. A copy here of a comic book by Milton Caniff, author of the Steven Canyon and Terry and the Pirates newspaper strips, is titled “How to Spot a Jap.” Life magazine also helpfully aided the effort with a December 22, 1941 story that illustrated “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese.” Photography supported the rounding up of “aliens,” if indirectly: ID cards for detainees required a photo.

Lange recorded the desperation of some business owners to prove their loyalty and hold on to their property. A photo of a storefront in Oakland, wearing the banner “I AM AN AMERICAN, was commissioned by grocery store owner Tatsuro Matsuda on March, 13, 1942. In another photo, taken a month later, Lange posed Dave Tatsuno and his father Shojiro in front of their San Francisco department store. Her activist documentation did not prevent their losing their business. (Dave Tatsuno later smuggled a camera into his relocation camp in Utah where he took the only known color movies of life under detention.)

All photographers hired by the WRA to record conditions in the camps were forbidden to take pictures of barbed wire or unhappy detainees. Clem Albers, whose realistic pictures of forced evacuations are among the finest after Lange’s, managed surreptitiously to photograph armed guards in a wooden tower. It was censored.

More than 800 photographs by Lange, taken from 21 locations, were impounded until after the war. A tiny selection, though, appeared in Outcasts! The Story of America’s Treatment of Her Japanese-American Minority by jailed pacifist Caleb Foote. Published in 1943-44, the booklet was one of the few voices of protest against the government’s actions.

Prisoners were initially forbidden to have cameras in the camps. Officials eventually relaxed this restriction. A section of the show titled “A Semblance of Normal Life” features a photograph of a fully stocked darkroom. Inmates put out newspapers, and even yearbooks, activities that became stories for the camp’s photojournalists. Among the most affecting photos here are by George and Frank C. Hirahara, incarcerated at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. A portrait of the well-dressed Inaba Family, standing in front of their Family Barrack, would be warmly benign if the landscape behind them weren’t so barren and forlorn. The dignified composure of the prisoners is only enhanced by the reasons for their being forcibly confined in these places.

As a purely photographic matter, the most intriguing section is the one featuring the documentary series done in 1943 of the Manzanar camp in California by Ansel Adams. He considered this body of work, published in 1944 as Born Free: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans, to be the most important of his career. Not many then or now have shared this view. When he exhibited them at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944, he was accused of being too pro-Japanese. Lange and several of her left-wing colleagues, on the other hand, believed just the opposite—that by portraying prisoners as clean and smiling and industrious, and by posing them against snowy mountain scenery, he was minimizing the unjust stripping of their political rights. Adams thought he was photographing their strength and endurance in the face of hardship; Lange thought he was making their confinement in a camp look like a holiday refuge.

What is the honor code for a stranger portraying other strangers who have far less economic or social power than you? Do photographers or filmmakers have the responsibility—or a realistic hope—of improving a situation with their work? The argument between Adams and Lange dates back to these years and is anything but settled now.

The organizers of the show smartly ask but don’t answer the question. They aren’t so careful about the larger historical frame for these events.The story of Japanese-American internment is presented here as the culmination of engrained hatred or distrust of Asian immigrants. Panels in the first room list more than a dozen bills, including the 1882 Chinese-exclusion Act and the “Gentleman’s Agreement” of 1907 that restricted issuance of passports to Japanese intending to move to the U.S.

Prejudice against Asians, though, is slightly misleading as an explanation for the panic among politicians on the West Coast that led to Executive Order 9066. Not all Asians were feared in these years. The Chinese and the Filipinos were our allies in World War II against the Japanese. The disgraceful internment after Pearl Harbor has similarities to the anti-German hysteria during World War I after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the blowing up of Black Tom Island in New York harbor in 1916. When nations suffer major loss of life from unprovoked military strikes, they tend to lash out blindly at any perceived enemies, as Arab-Americans found after September 11th. Irrational revenge against ethnic groups has been an ugly reality throughout American history, and continues to this day.

Nor do the wall panels have anything to say about the anomaly that Japanese on the islands of Hawaii, ground zero for the opening of hostilities, were largely spared. Only about 2,000 in a population of 157,000 were imprisoned. Why were these Japanese, who had closer ties to Asia and should have aroused far more suspicion than those on the mainland, overlooked by the government? Because had there been mass incarceration, the local economy—and agricultural exports—would have stopped. In America, especially during wartime, money often trumps racism.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Given the historical nature of the works on view, we will dispense with the usual discussion of secondary market prices and gallery representation.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Funny how documentary photography is the lowest of the low in the photo-art world hierarchy, and yet exhibits like these are often the most profound and affecting. Appreciate the highly detailed historical contextualising. The gallery shots are excellent, too.

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