What Ansel Adams Can Teach Us About Photographic Propaganda


Ansel Adams is without a doubt one of the greatest photographers who ever lived. And while he is famous primarily for his haunting landscapes of Yosemite, few people know that he was also a deft hand at counter-propaganda.

In the highly politicised environment of World War 2, Adams took a stand for what he believed was the unjust treatment of interned Japanese Americans. The resulting collection, while published in his book, Born Free and Equal, had limited exposure and circulation due to the politics of the time. Luckily, the collection is one of the few of Ansel Adams’ collections that is in the public domain.

The interesting part about this collection is the choice of subject matter. Note the “typical American” qualities of these photos which were all taken at an internment camp.

A Baseball Game

A Home Scene

Farming Cabbages

Practicing American Football

Girl Playing Volleyball

Painter painting US Landscape Scene

Office Scene

Interred Japanese-American Policeman

Townhall Meeting with American Flag

Adams’ intent to portray the interred Japanese-Americans as typical members of society is inescapable. Baseball, American football, the American flag flying at a town hall meeting – subject selection was obviously of primary importance to Adams in shooting these photos. Even the hairstyles and clothing of the people in these shots is typical of American society at the time. The power of such images for getting a point across is undeniable and is made even more potent when the pictures are viewed as a collection. At a time when any depictions of Japanese would have been very slanted towards negative Japanese stereotypes, these pictures were confronting.

Ansel Adams knew the power of photography in social and political discourse. While he may forever remain most famous for his landscapes and skies, it’s always fascinating to note that he could adapt his art to suit the messages he wanted others to see. Check out the entire collection at the Library of Congress.

About Author

Rob is the founder of Light Stalking. His love for photography started as a child with a Kodak Instamatic and pushed him into building this fantastic place all these years later, and you can get to know him better here.
Rob's Gear
Camera: Nikon D810
Lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8

I absolutely love Ansel’s work. I believe in and get his philosophy and try to model my photography directly on his style. Great piece!

Are you flipping kidding me? That’s propoganda but to me it looks like it’s designed to lessen white American guilt over the unconstitutional imprisonment of the Japanese.

“Oh look they’re playing baseball! They’re having a grand ole time, nothing to worry about!”

Where’s the photos of the hundreds of people using one toilet or the horse stalls they had to sleep in?

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