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Re-creating Ansel Adams's
Born Free and Equal

Marc Rochkind

24-July-2012

 

Manzanar, located about 185 miles north of Los Angeles, was one of ten relocation centers formed pursuant to an executive order issued by President Roosevelt in early 1942, just a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. About 110,000 people of Japanese descent were interned in these camps; of those, over 60% were native born American citizens. There were no charges of disloyalty, no trials, and no hearings. While the internment is almost universally recognized today as unjust, at the time it was strongly supported by most Americans, especially on the west coast. In 1983 a commission established by the US Congress called the internment "unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity" and reparations were paid. The US Supreme Court never explicitly ruled the internment unconstitutional.

Ansel Adams went to Manzanar in the fall of 1943 not to document the harsh conditions under which the internees were held, but, just the opposite: to show that the people there were Americans just like anyone else. To this end, he showed family life, factories, offices, the farm, the park, sports activities, artists, civic meetings, the hospital, the school, and church services. He wanted to show these loyal Japanese-Americans not as an "abstract, amorphous, minority group" (his words), but "on a human, emotional basis, accenting the realities of the individual and his environment".

In May 1944 Adams went to New York to show his Manzanar photographs at the Museum of Modern Art along with text he had written. After several delays and funding difficulties, the show went on, but the Museum changed Adams's ironic title, "Born Free and Equal", to the more neutral "Manzanar", and also weakened his text.

U. S. Camera planned to publish the photographs along with an expanded text. Unfortunately, the book was put together in haste. Adams had already returned to California. In the words of Nancy Newhall, who wrote a review in June, 1946:

The actual assembly of the book was entrusted to an inexperienced assistant, who nearly broke down under the strain. To me [Newhall], the books bear the marks of this haste and confusion. Physically, for a book designed to sell cheaply and produced in wartime, the number, size, and comparative quality of the illustrations are admirable. But illustrations and text continually interrupt each other. Instead of a close relation, building logically to a climax, sequences of photographs which often cumulate prematurely are scattered through the text, compelling the reader with half a sentence hanging in his mind to leaf through several pages of illustrations before he can get on with it. The text is uneven. Parts of it are brilliant by themselves and somewhat repetitive when read together. Crisper characterization in the interviews with individuals, and possibly juxtaposition with the big closeup portraits, would have added to the strength and the directness of the impression. It would have been well, when the original sequence was discarded, to have started with a totally fresh concept. These faults are due to lack of that careful and incisive editing every book, and especially one as potentially great as this one, should receive.

In my view, Newhall overstated the problems with the book. While the text is a little rough in spots, on the whole it's well written and extremely compelling, and should be essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Ansel Adams.

Adams allowed the copyright on the book to lapse, so it's now in the public domain. The Library of Congress has a scan of its copy on its website for anyone to view or download. Adams also donated 209 photographic prints and 242 original negatives of Manzanar to the Library of Congress between 1965 and 1968, and these are now in the public domain also. During his time at Manzanar, Adams made two of his most famous photographs: Mount Williamson, the Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1944 and Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, 1944, but these were not part of the bequest to the Library of Congress. Three other landscapes that appeared in the book were also omitted.

In 2002 Spotted Dog Press published a version of Born Free and Equal. But its layout is different, some photographs are omitted, others are added, Adams's text has been changed, and additional (worthwhile) essays by others have been added. Adams "poorly printed" (his words), awkwardly arranged (my words) little book was turned into a fine photography book, but it's not authentic. In a few cases, the original Adams text was changed to correct minor errors, such as the misspelling of a name, but in other cases the changes were gratuitous. I can guess, but can't prove, that the text was turned over to a copyeditor who took it upon himself or herself to improve it, not understanding its archival value, and that the editors of the book weren't aware of the changes. The omission of photographs that were in the original book is inexcusable.

Another related book, Manzanar, by John Armor and Peter Wright (Vintage Books, 1988), combines some of Adams's Manzanar photographs with a commentary by John Hersey, perhaps the best writing on Manzanar anywhere. This book is now out of print, but used copies are easily obtainable.

Now, for my modest role in all of this.

A few years ago, I started to construct iPad apps to show public-domain photographs I had downloaded from the Library of Congress, such as those from Andreas Feininger, Dorthea Lange, John Collier, Arthur Rothstein, Esther Bubley, and Ben Shahn. One of my apps is "Manzanar", showing the Manzanar prints that Adams donated to the Library of Congress, related photographs by Dorthea Lange, photos showing the site as it looks today, and the Library's scan of Born Free and Equal. (These apps are available in the App Store for iOS and MacOS.)

A few months ago, I got another idea: Since the original version of Born Free and Equal is not only out of print, but almost impossible to find anywhere, I would reprint the book. So, I took the Library of Congress's scans, straightened and trimmed them a bit, and formatted them as a print-on-demand book that I published through Amazon's CreateSpace print-on-demand service. That book, which I call the facsimile edition, is now available. (All books are available from Amazon; links are at the end.)

Unfortunately, the book suffers from the poor quality of the original book, not nearly up to the standards of Adams's other photography books, and the poor quality of the scan. The scans of the donated prints, however, were excellent. So this led to a more ambitious project: To re-create the book with fresh typography and photos replaced by scans of the prints instead of scans of the original book.

I used Apple's Pages app to put the re-creation together. I ran the optical-character-recognition (OCR) in Adobe Acrobat to convert the text from images to characters, and then, to catch errors, had my Mac read it aloud while I followed along in the original book. The result was an authentic text document. I made sure to preserve all spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors. The text is not improved!

Next, I cropped the prints to match the original book and arranged the text and images to follow the pagination and layout of the original book as closely as possible.

I don't know exactly what font the original used, but Times seemed close enough, so I used that. I don't know the physical size of the book, either (I've never seen one), so I made it 6-by-9 inches. I created a cover that matches the original, too. I replaced the five copyrighted landscapes (mentioned above) with placeholder gray rectangles, although they do appear in the facsimile edition.

I published the re-created book with CreateSpace.

Finally, I produced an ebook of the re-created book. The sequence of text and photographs matches the original, except that, where a sentence is split by one or more photos, I moved the text a bit to keep the sentence contiguous. And, of course, the layout is different, since the contents has to flow to accommodate different ebook readers. It's available for a Kindle or a Kindle app (iPad, PC, Mac, and Android devices).

I didn't stop there. Only about 65 of the 244 Adams Manzanar photos that he donated to the Library of Congress are in Born Free and Equal. So, I produced another book, also with CreateSpace, that I titled Photographs of Manzanar.

Lastly, I recreated an ebook version of Photographs of Manzanar.

In summary, I've produced five Manzanar-related books:

1. Facsimile in paper
2. Re-creation in paper
3. Re-creation as an ebook
4. 244 Manzanar photographs in paper
5. 244 Manzanar photographs as an ebook

To which I could add:

6. Library of Congress scan on their website.
7. Modified version from Spotted Dog Press.

That should do it. This all-but-impossible-to-get book is now very easy to get, thanks to some computer technology, a few hours of very enjoyable work on my part, ebooks, and print-on-demand.


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