Outside the Japanese American National Museum in L.A.'s Little Tokyo sits a sculpture of a large camera. It's an homage for Toyo Miyatake, the owner of a local photography studio, who in 1942 was interned with his family 200 miles north of the city at Manzanar, one of the ten World War II American concentration camps for West Coast Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although cameras owned by internees were verboten, Miyatake snuck in a lens and film, telling his eldest son that it was his "responsibility to photograph this event." And with the help of an interned carpenter, a wooden box camera was made (other supplies had to be smuggled into the camp) and Miyatake began to take photos on the sly.
Eventually a friend who knew the camp director secured Miyatake permission to use his equipment, but only if a white staff member tripped the shutter. That restriction, too, was later lifted and Miyatake was free to take photos on his own. He established a photo studio, allowing for other photographers (even Ansel Adams used it during his visit) to document life for the camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press.
Now over 50 of the photos, including of a number of the secretly taken ones (light leaks from the wooden box and all), are on display at a special exhibit in Independence at the Eastern California Museum, which also houses a permanent Manzanar exhibit that pre-dates the national historic site several miles down the road. They show life at the camp: the comic book section at the general store, gardening, Halloween, Christmas, high school graduation, the Visual Education Museum, a school fire drill, a flower exhibit and so much more.
The exhibit will run through at least the end of the year, when it will be replaced by another big topic of Eastern Sierra history: the centennial of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. As for Miyatake's photos, they will become part of the permanent Manzanar exhibit on a rotating basis.
For more photos by Miyatake, the Japanese American National Museum has a collection of his work for the Japanese American newspaper Rafu Shimpo between the '50s and '80s. Much of it is available online.
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