Tag Archives: Authorship

Chapter Post: Toyo Miyatake and “Our World” by Karin Higa

Karin Higa’s chapter “Toyo Miyatake and ‘Our World’” centers on a 1944 high school year book called Our World and the photographer who made it possible, Toyo Miyatake.  The yearbook was product of high school students interned in the American concentration camp Manzanar in California which held more than 11,000 Japanese Americans from March 1942 to November 1945.  Higa’s chapter analyzes the many roles of Miyatake- as a photographer for the Our World yearbook, as the official photographer of Manzanar, as an artist and as an interned Japanese American – in relation to the phenomenon of Japanese internment and notion of Americanness in a unique historical moment.

Miyatake served for all intents and purposes as the official photograph at Manzanar assuming this role first in an illicit manner using a camera and film he had smuggled into the camp from Los Angeles, before being given essentially free reign to photograph by the camp’s director.  Prior to his internment, Miyatake had been a fairly successful photographer.  In addition to owning his own photographic studio in, Miyatake participated in a number of international and national photography salons and even worked as a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun photographing the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.  In addition, Miyatake’s work with the Shaku-do-Sha, “an interdisciplinary group of painter, poets and photographers based in Little Tokyo” uniquely positioned him as “both insider and outsider in his photographic practice” a role that likely influenced his role as a photographer in Manzanar (337).

While interned, Miyatake continued to operate as a photographer in much the same way as he had outside of the camp, photographing family events as well as daily life around the camp.  The desire to have these moments captured on film was so strong that it became necessary to institute a system of rationing whereby coupons were distributed to families for particular events.  Miyatake also photographed nearly all of the images for the Our World yearbook (with the famed Ansel Adams contributing the few not by Miyatake).  Finally, Miyatake photographed the images for Valediction which was the yearbook for Manzanar High School’s class of 1945, the final graduating class from Manzanar.

Miyatake’s personal background and the ways in which he continued to operate within some degree of normalcy are essential to Higa’s discussion of Our World as Miyatake embodies in many ways the underlying tensions of the project.  At its core, Our World represented a desire for normalcy, as the forward explains the purpose of the yearbook was to “approximate in all activities we knew ‘back home.’” (335).   The yearbook bears much in common with conventional high school annuals of the day.  Individual students are presented in rows of headshots and are identified by name as well as by the name of their home high schools, those which they would be attending were it not for their internment.  The annual also featured collaged photographs assembled to look like candid snapshots as well as an “Activities” section.  Another section entitled “Democracy” featured photographs of town hall meetings and Japanese American soldiers.  The rest of the sections were devoted to depicting various aspects of daily life in Manzanar.

A central thesis of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks is that they function as deliberate and orchestrated performances of American-ness through an excessive attempt at presenting normality intended to counteract conceptions of Japanese-Americans as the enemy.  In turn, Miyatake’s photographs extend the project beyond mere documentation by presenting images that on the surface lack a constructed narrative.  Thus, the almost banal nature of Miyatake’s photographs “underscores the absurdity of the incarceration itself.” (340).  When viewed in the context of the present day, it is this banality that makes the images even more unsettling.  As Higa writes, “it is difficult to reconcile the severe and harrowing experiences of incarceration with a seemingly contradictory picture of utter normality.” (338).

While I agree with much of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks and the work of  Miyatake, leaves little room for divergence regarding the identities of those in the camps.  In other words, Higa presents the experience of the internment camps as a monolith; an experience that erased all differences among the Japanese Americans in the camps.  As with any shared experience this was undoubtedly true to a certain extent.  While in the internment camps, outside signifiers of difference disappeared creating a shared sense of identity and experience.  However, the experience of those in the camps must inherently have diverged as well.  Within internment camps were business owners who were forced to give up their businesses while others came into the camps with little to their name.  In addition, some in the camps were already second generation American citizens while others were still citizens of Japan.  In this light, the forward of Our World stating that the students sought an approximation of activities from “back home” is problematized.  The home to which this refers is different for each student in more than just the literal sense.  While the images in the yearbook may serve as a holistic performance of “American-ness”, they did not derive from a singular sense of what that American-ness meant and what it ought to look like.  While Miyatake’s images may at first present an image of normalcy in America, in addition to overlooking the absurdity of internment to which Higa alludes, they also overlook the artificiality of this normalcy within the Japanese American community.  The presentation of the Japanese American community as just that, a singular community, is in of itself a creation within a creation and one that is not accounted for in Higa’s analysis of Miyatake’s photos

Along this same line, Higa describes Miyatake’s continued devotion to American ideals and identity even in the face of “assaults on person liberty, property, and political identity.” (343).  Higa hints at how this concept is problematic and is in fact problematized somewhat by the “self-conscious fashioning of young Japanese Americans who knew that because they looked like the enemy, they were deemed so by their own government.” (343). However, Higa fails to address the way in which this tension was concurrently playing itself out in a national and nationalistic sense.  Is a nation reductive in the sense that it represents what we all have in common, or is it about a geographical boundary within which diversity persists but exists under the umbrella of the nation?

Such a struggle plays itself out in the photographs of Miyatake as they present images seeking to demonstrate a shared identity between those within the camps and those outside of them.  These are not images of the enemy but are instead images of Americans.  At the same time, the images, and in particular Our World, demonstrate a separate community, one defined by geographical space.  This community is the one inside the camps, and in a literal sense you are either in or you’re out.  To the extent that Our World served as a performance of American-ness it also served as a performance of Japanese-American-ness one that functioned to identify otherness just as much as sameness.

While internment camps, unfortunately, came to define in part what it meant to be Japanese American, the sheer existence of such camps cut at the notion of what it meant to be American.  The American ideals Miyatake sought to uphold were in flux and not just within the camps.  In many ways, the entire country during this time was taking part in a performance of American-ness that, in the same manner as the ongoing performance in Manzanar, left unresolved many of the questions of what this American-ness meant or to what end it was serving.

Finally, the question arises as to how these images should be approached today.  For many Americans, the existence of internment camps remains a dark spot in our history, an occurrence that is often overlooked or minimized.  As has been discussed in this essay, this struggle is not new and it is likely the case that these images would have been just as troubling to some in 1944 as they remain in 2012.  Thus, who were these images intended for?  The answer to this question plays an important role in how we look at these images today.  It seems unlikely that at the time anyone outside of the camp would have seen them or that those within the camp would have expected their audience to be anyone other than themselves.  At the same time, the entire staging of both Our World and Valediction suggest, perhaps idealistically, a broader audience.  Further, yearbooks inherently speak to a future audience, encapsulating memories with the idea that we will one day return to reflect on our former selves.  Depicting vulnerable and awkward periods of our lives, yearbooks anticipate our looking back with both nostalgia and regret.

Anyone who has ever returned to a yearbook can appreciate the exercise.  For some, they see a time to which they wish they could return, other see things they wish they could forget.  In many ways, it is not so much what yearbooks depict that determines their importance in our lives.  Rather, it is just that they exist.  It is comfort that comes with knowing our memories are safely stored, that they remain in a medium to which we can always return.  A yearbook can be shared not only with those from our past but also those from our present.  The function of Miyatake’s images in this capacity both in the lives of those pictured as well as within the particular moment of American history, should not be overlooked.  Our World remains the world of those interned in Manzanar, but its existence permits those who count themselves amongst the “our” in that phrase to continue not only to exist, but more importantly to expand.

Image Sources:

http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v32n1/broz.html

All page numbers refer to-

Higa, Karin. “Toyo Miyatake and “Our World.”  In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Disruption and Consumption: J.P. Ball’s Photographs of William Biggerstaff (Blog Post 2)

J.P. Ball & Son, Portrait of William Biggerstaff seated in a chair with a hand on his face wearing a flower in his lapel; Photograph of the Execution of William Biggerstaff, hanged for the murder of “Dick” Johnson, flanked by Rev. Victor Day and Henry Jurgens, sheriff, 1896; Photograph of William Biggerstaff, former slave, born in Lexington, KY in 1854, 1896.

 

This work is a series of three photographs taken by James Presley Ball of William Biggerstaff in the year in 1896.  Biggerstaff was a former slave from Lexington, Kentucky who had moved out West to Montana after gaining his freedom.  In 1895, Biggerstaff was accused of murdering the African American prizefighter Dick Johnson in a quarrel over a white woman.[1]  Although Biggerstaff claimed the killing was done in self-defense he was nonetheless found guilty and hung.  In this series of images, Biggerstaff is shown in life, just after his execution and in death.

The first image is a posed portrait of Biggerstaff.  His head rests on his right hand and he gazes solemnly in that direction.  He is dressed formally wearing a suit with a flower pinned to the lapel.  The second image is gruesome and depicts Biggerstaff’s hanging body shortly after his execution.  His face is covered in a mask meant to preserve his dignity in death but which only adds to the horrific nature of the image.  Biggerstaff wears the same coat as in the first picture and is flanked by a Reverend, Victor  Day, as well as the sheriff, Henry Jurgens.  A crowd of onlookers is clearly visible in the back indicating the public nature and spectacle of Biggerstaff’s death.  In the final image, Biggerstaff is shown in his casket.  The angle of the image draws attention to his hand on which a wedding ring is clearly visible.

At first glance this troublesome series of images seems no different than the myriad of lynching images from this time period.  Leigh Raiford describes such images as an essential component of the “reinscribing of the black body as commodity” and a mechanism that “helped extend [a unified white identity] far beyond the town, the county, the state, the South, to include whites nationwide and even internationally.”[2]  While this is certainly true of the vast majority of lynching images several features of this image complicate reading it in such a manner.  The first is the presentation of the three images as opposed to a singular image of a lynched body as was the custom.  Rather the photographer’s decision to use three images, including one showing Biggerstaff while he was still, creates a narrative that individualizes the work.  Typical lynching images present bodies that are often unrecognizable, providing an anonymity that allows for a disassociation from the work that for white audiences at the time played into racist fantasies and for contemporary audiences makes it easier to stomach.  Such dissociation is impossible with this series.  By presenting Bigerstaff’s portrait side-by-side with those of his death, the photographer creates a narrative that contextualizes and brings meaning to Biggerstaff’s life as well as death.  The wedding ring in the final image punctuates this narrative and again forces the viewer to think about the consequences of Biggerstaff’s death on those in his life.

The second characteristic of the photograph that disrupts a conventional reading, is not a feature inherent to the work itself but is in fact the photographer, James Presley (J.P.) Ball.  Ball was born a free man in 1825 in Virginia.  He learned the art of daguerreotype and quickly became extremely successful as a photographer.  As one of the most successful and famous photographers of the latter half of the 20th century, Ball photographed a number of notable people including Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass.[3]  However, in addition to his famous portraits, Ball also documented the horrors of slavery as well as lynchings, publishing a pamphlet addressing the horrors of slavery from capture in Africa through the Middle Passage, ” and serving as the official photographer for the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. [4]  In addition, Ball was one of the leaders of the movement for William Biggerstaff’s clemency.[5]

Thus, when viewed in this light, these images necessarily take on a different meaning.  If lynching images were commodify the black body for white consumption, as Raiford argues, then what does it mean that this particular set of images was taken by a photographer such as Ball?  To some degree the images of Biggerstaff highlight the relevance of authorship and purpose when it comes to lynching images.  Had the same set of images been taken by a white photographer for purposes more in keeping with most lynching images, they would remain part of the processes described by Raiford, lacking any notion of emancipation.  At the same time, the mere fact that Ball may have intended the images to serve as a call to arms, or at the very least a powerful memorial to Biggerstaff, does not control how they would have been and continue to be interpreted.  Thus, although the typical mechanisms of lynching images are unquestionably disrupted, Ball’s role and the photograph itself cannot be neatly summarized.  The question then, becomes what the role of the art historian ought to be with regards to this image.  Is it enough to merely draw attention to the ways in which interpretations of images are complicated by concepts of authorship, viewership, subject and object?  Such an exercise seems to fall short.


[1] The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

[2] Leigh Raiford, “The Consumption of Lynching Images,” p. 270.  From Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis.

[3] http://www.lonniedawkins.com/JamesPresleyBall.htm#_edn5; (The San Francisco Call, 1896)

The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[4] http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[5] P. 246, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature by Jacqueline Goldsby. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Also: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/ball-james-presley-1825-1904, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/amacker/photo/death.html

Introduction: Framing the Discussion

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587                                                      Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587) Self-Portrait

This week’s class was an exercise in locating- locating ourselves in the course as well as the locating the artists and works we are studying within an art historical narrative. Thus, the focus was primarily on establishing a basic mode of inquiry into the intersection of race, gender and art.  We discussed just what exactly terms such as “gender” mean within the context of the course.   In this week’s text, Gender and Art, Gill Perry provided the following definition of gender: “a cultural construction of femininity and masculinity, as opposed to the biological sex (male or female) which we are born with.” (Perry 8).

One critique of this definition, however, is its failure to locate the notion of gender within any sort of temporal or referential locus.  In the context of the 16th and 17th century, the need for a more rooted conception of gender manifested itself in our viewings of self-portraits created by female artists.  While these portraits by artists such as Catharina de Hemessen, Sophonisba Anguissola and Judith Leyster clearly conveyed culturally constructed elements of gender, they also asserted gender in a manner distinctly rooted in temporal and historical associations not captured by Perry’s conception of gender.

Another component of this week’s discussion was the use of several themes as a means of structuring the discussion and facilitating continued inquiry throughout the course.  These themes were – (re)claiming, looking, portraying, performing and making. In keeping with the notion of “locating” the themes were used to anchor our interpretations by framing the discussion in terms of various notions of “self” (e.g. us as viewers or the artist as creator) and “other” (e.g. diegetic audiences within the works or various external audiences). Thus, each theme enabled both broad and narrow exploration of the ways in which identity (meaning sense of self) is formulated, presented, projected, perceived and interpreted by artists and viewers alike.

– Jess Newman