It’s pretty commonplace for folks to question their government and the choices their government makes. As a reflection of the times, the International Center of Photography (ICP) in NYC has two new exhibits doing just that. The first portrays one of the closest and cruelest things American politicians have done: the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is a collection of photographs from a number of Japanese photographers and includes the work from some greats such as Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. Yes, that’s right; the father of landscape photography even has his own section in this exhibit. This exhibit gives way to Edmund Clark: The Day The Music Died. In this exhibit, viewers should be mentally prepared to be intentionally confused and at times even irritated.
Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II (January 26, 2018 – May 06, 2018)
The exhibition examines a dark episode in US history when, in the name of national security, the government incarcerated 120,000 citizens and legal residents during World War II without due process or other constitutional protections. This exhibition features works by renowned photographers Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others documenting the eviction of Japanese Americans and permanent Japanese residents from their homes as well as their subsequent lives in incarceration camps. Also included are photographs by incarcerated photographer Toyo Miyatake.
Then They Came For Me is a very streamlined, documentary style exhibit designed to chronicle the internment of Japanese people in America. In case you never paid attention to the two paragraphs or so that your high school American history books spent on this, this was a really major time in American history. Apparently, it started even before Pearl Harbor and for the most part, we’ve swept it under the rug as a nation instead of fessing up and reminding future generations about the terrible things we’ve done as a country. The story goes that the American government had hired photographers to document what was happening and to show how “humane” the government was being. But there were two big rules: photographers couldn’t show the barbed wire fences and they couldn’t show the guard towers. In some of the images, that’s exactly what we saw. Today, we know a bit better (well, I’d really like to think and hope so despite what’s going on with DACA and a number of other things).
The photographs document a number of things: families getting onto trains, the conditions, first hand accounts, reintegration into American society, acts of defiance, etc. It includes images from a number of Japanese photographers such as Toyo Miyatake who was incarcerated himself, caught, and then turned into a photographer whose job it was to document what was happening. There are images by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. When you hear those names you’re bound to perk up. Lange’s images are very token to her style while Adams’ are different from the landscapes many people know him for. Adams decided to find a way to humanize, personify, and show the prisoners (because let’s be honest, that’s what they were) as proud people. His intentions seemed genuinely good but he faced criticism from others for not apparently doing enough to depict just how terrible the conditions were.
Every image in the exhibit is black and white and well lit with a color neutral background as if the curator really wants you to hone in on what happened. There are a collection of artifacts, textual descriptions, and images printed at decent sizes. The exhibit layout is designed in such a way that it begs you to get up close and personal to each image in order to study it. In some ways, I would describe it as cookie cutter. While the content itself is incredibly important and is work I genuinely believe everyone needs to see and open themselves up to, that vulnerability I think could have been much better utilized with the inclusion of larger images. ICP has made great use of very big images in the past in addition to multimedia projections, and this exhibit is the antithesis – instead leading you along the lines of a very narrow story path. It’s my belief that much more probably could have been done to force viewers to look at specific things vs having a passive layout more akin to what I’d expect to see somewhere like the Rubin Museum of Art.
Nonetheless, this content is incredibly important to our history; and everyone who calls themselves a proud American should really see this exhibit.
Edmund Clark: The Day The Music Died (January 26, 2018 – May 06, 2018)
British photographer Edmund Clark spent 10 years exploring structures of power and control in the so-called global War on Terror. Edmund Clark: The Day the Music Died presents photographic, video, and installation work focusing on the measures deemed necessary to protect citizens from the threat of international terrorism. It also explores the far-reaching effects of such methods of control on issues of security, secrecy, legality, and ethics. From Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan to extraordinary rendition and the CIA’s secret prison program, Clark’s work finds new ways to visualize the processes, sites, and experiences associated with the United States’ response to international terrorism. His engagement with military and state censorship defines the secrecy and denial around these subjects.
Edmund Clark: The Day The Music Died is the exhibit that starts on ICP’s main level with a juxtaposition right across the last bit of Then They Came For Me. It’s designed to lead the viewer from one into the other and also has to do with government decisions. But this one deals with more modern decisions around Guantanamo and apparently 14,000 other government black sites. When you walk in, you’re visually thrusted into a number of declassified government documents that have names crossed out. You’ll see page after page pasted onto a wall in the center of the main room. Along the walls of the room, you’ll see photos of things that could have been shot anywhere. But when you look closely at the captions and indexes, you’ll see that the images are directly correlated to people who have been incarcerated by the government. Some of the images look ordinary and don’t really provide a whole lot of details. If I didn’t know any better, it would be easy to pass it off as sloppy photojournalism due to the lack cohesiveness to a narrative. But in this case, the exhibit is purposely designed to do this despite some of these documents even being declassified.
For example, you’ll see images of an opulent pool inside a house and only when you pair it up to a name, you’ll realize that perhaps this is where an incarcerated man was captured. You’ll also see random things such as a table and you’ll need to put the pieces of the puzzle together in some way or another. If you’re a puzzle solver or not used to art being this abstract, you’ll probably have a lot of fun. But if you’re looking at it at face value, it’s easy to become frustrated. All of this information is being withheld from us–and that’s the entire point. Sometimes these people have no idea why they’re being taken away and interrogated, and this exhibit is brilliantly designed to give you that exact feeling. In fact, I became so frustrated with it at one point that I needed to walk away after pondering so hard on the images.
My job as a photography blogger has been to figure out the psychology of photography – such as why the composition of this image works and what about the content is so gripping. And in this case, you’re presented with a bunch of images with an incredibly subtle connection – the fact that they’re all images which somehow or another have to do with the threat of international terrorism. But unless it was explained to you, you would probably not understand it at all. At one point, I was incredibly frustrated and had to walk away, back to the other exhibit. But as I’ve given it a few days to ruminate in my mind, I think it’s genuinely brilliant. I’ve never really been angered by an exhibition before – this is the first time. And when I think about it further, I completely see the connection and the point Edmund and the curators are trying to make.
Head over to ICP soon, you won’t be sorry.
Additional imagery provided by Staffer Paul Ip