Reviewed by DAVID COZY On Feb. 14, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed “Executive Order 9066, which gave to the military power to designate areas from which ‘any and all persons may be excluded’ . . .” and thus “some 120,000 Japanese Americans — two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens . . . — were forcibly and summarily removed from their homes and placed in concentration camps for the duration of the war.”
A cursory examination of American history — and of America today — makes any affectation of surprise that the United States was involved in such a sordid enterprise ingenuous at best. One is amazed to learn, however, that not only was the government determined to keep a photographic record of these camps, but that it also hired one of America’s finest photographers, Dorothea Lange, to produce that record.
The government did, to be sure, have second thoughts: Lange’s photographs of the camps were impounded and suppressed until the end of World War II, and although barriers to publication were later lifted, most of the photographs Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro have assembled in “Impounded,” had never before been published. This book is important, therefore, both for the light it throws on a shameful moment in American history and for the light it throws on Dorothea Lange’s career.
All of Lange’s work demonstrates her concern for the powerless and her disgust at the injustice that prevents them from bettering their condition. As an employee of the government that was responsible for the incarceration of Japanese Americans, she had to find a way to tell the truth about what was happening without getting herself fired. This was not easy. She was not, for example, allowed to take photographs of: “barbed wire or watchtowers or armed soldiers guarding the camps,” or anything “hinting at resistance within the camps.”
Likewise, in some of the captions Lange composed for her photographs she seems to have felt compelled to parrot prevailing propaganda. In one photograph, for example, a horticulturalist who “grew prize chrysanthemums for select eastern markets” poses in the field which he would soon be forced to abandon. “Evacuees of Japanese ancestry,” Lange assures us in the caption to this image, “will be given opportunities to follow their callings at War Relocation Authority centers.”
“Lange probably calculated,” Gordon surmises, “that the censors would look as much to the words as to the pictures and that she could appease them through captions.”
This seems plausible. Censors, when expurgating works of art, almost invariably miss what is essential, and the essence of Lange’s work is in the images, images that often negate entirely the words that accompany them. One can only assume, for example, that Lange was being ironic when she wrote: “one of eight recreation centers . . . set apart for games and recreation under the Recreation program,” beneath a photograph of a dust field serving as a basketball court, the hoop nailed to a crude frame constructed, it appears, from scrap wood.
The social and political importance of Lange’s images should not be allowed to overshadow her achievement as an artist. So perfectly composed, for example, is her photograph of an old woman asleep in a “temporary barracks hospital,” a pitcher and two apples on the nightstand beside her, that one thinks not of agitprop, but of Old Masters.
Photographs — even those far less exquisite than Lange’s — are powerful, and the dullards in government recognize this still today. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, after seeing photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib, banned cameras in detention facilities.