In the photo, a young boy hangs on a fence. His face is partially obscured; his eyes hover just above his bent knuckles. His stance is playful. On first impression, he looks like any kid in the middle of play.
The background, however, tells another story. Receding endlessly into the horizon are the rows of barracks of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a World War II Japanese internment camp near Cody, Wyo.
During the three years it was open, August 1942 to November 1945, Heart Mountain held more than 14,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Many of them were American citizens. All of them — mechanics, farmers, green grocers, small children and grandparents — were forcibly removed from locations along the West Coast on unfounded (and patently hysterical) suspicions of espionage following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Among the detainees: Bill Manbo, an American citizen who, prior to being detained, had operated a garage in Hollywood. In addition to being a mechanic, Manbo was also a dedicated amateur photographer, shooting color at a time when the form was still nascent. (Kodachrome, the first widely used color film, had come on the market in 1935.)
Manbo maintained his hobby even after being relocated to Heart Mountain. And the collection of pictures he took there — roughly 175 Kodachrome images — represent a singular view of internment, all executed in color.
Eric Muller, who helped gather Manbo’s images for the book “Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II,” says that when he first learned about the pictures from collector and former Heart Mountain internee Bacon Sakatani, he was floored.
“When he showed them to me, I did the triple-cartoon take,” recalls Muller. “There aren’t very many color photos documenting the camps during that era, but Manbo was shooting Kodachrome. And then I saw the photos and saw that they revealed life in the camps the way other photography has not. It’s very intimate, with lighter moments too: parades, moments of celebration, gatherings.”
Manbo died in 1992, but the images had remained in the care of his family. They have emerged as a book (published by the University of North Carolina in 2012) and a museum exhibition of the same name, now on view at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A.
And what images they are: Manbo has a sympathetic eye for people doing their best to maintain some semblance of daily life in what are extenuating circumstances. There are families dressed up for formal portraits, women in kimonos staging a traditional Japanese dance, a Boy Scout parade and his son Billy playing with a toy airplane — all set against the austere Rocky Mountain landscape.
To get his film processed while he was in the camp, Manbo would send it to developers in Los Angeles.
“He used the same business that he used in Hollywood where he had his garage,” says Muller. “And he had an alias that he used at times. He gave himself the French name Pierre Manbeaux. His son still has the mailers that the slides came back to camp in.”
The photos are significant but not just because of their historic significance. When I saw them on view at JANM, I was struck by the level of skill they displayed. Manbo may have been an amateur, but in his framing, he was a pro. The images contain countless artful moments: a lone boy walking a path that ends with a craggy mountain peak or a row of children stand before the vertical slats of a cabin — a wonderful play on lines.
The image of his son Billy climbing the barbed wire fence of the camp is one that stayed with me. The sense of depth it provides is profound, with barracks that seem to extend into an infinite gray landscape. There is also its ambivalence: a moment of childish joy amid an unutterable adult-inflicted tragedy — a striking meditation on what it means to emerge from adversity with dignity intact.