"Ansel Adams: A Portrait of Manzanar" at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum examines the internment-camp experience of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II.

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“This is a voluntary migration,” the upbeat voice-over explains as the camera surveys a California internment camp for Japanese Americans removed from their homes by the Roosevelt administration in 1942. “It is in no sense a concentration camp.”

Those lines jump out at you when you watch “Remembering Manzanar,” a 22-minute documentary that is part of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum’s compact but impressive exhibit, “Ansel Adams: A Portrait of Manzanar.” The statement is in such absurd contradiction to the sights depicted on film that you wonder, nearly 70 years later, how anyone could have bought into it at the time. Some recent visitors to the museum gasped when they heard it.

“Ansel Adams: A Portrait of Manzanar,” composed mostly of black-and-white photographs taken by the legendary American photographer in late 1943, acknowledges the prejudices and fears that led the U.S. government to confine American citizens and legal immigrants of Japanese ethnicity behind barbed wire.

But its main focus is on the personal experiences of the internees Adams photographed. Adams was given two ground rules when he went to Manzanar: no shots of guard towers and no shots of barbed wire. Yet in the eyes of the people he photographed, many of them staring directly into the camera, you can fathom the twists and turns of the internment-camp experience.

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For curator Rick Chandler, the portraits were the obvious focus for the exhibit as he put it together. Chandler didn’t grow up on Bainbridge and didn’t know much about the relocations until 10 years ago, when he became associated with the museum.

“One of the museum docents that I met back then was Lilly Kitamoto Kodama, who went to Manzanar as a young girl,” he said. “She is still very active as a museum volunteer and is a good friend.”

Kodama, in a telephone interview last week, said: “I’m happy that the exhibit reminds people of what happened, because I think the story hasn’t been told enough in the past.”

While she’s glad to have Adams’ photography receiving attention, she points out that some people object to it because it often shows internees looking content. She understands their objections: “It doesn’t show how awful it was.”

Her own feeling is that the photographs, taken under the constrictions mentioned above, reveal the strength of Japanese Americans under difficult circumstances. Of Adams’ work, she adds: “Whatever brings out what happened is a good thing.”

Kodama’s childhood experience of Manzanar and Minidoka was different, of course, from that of her parents who, like so many parents, tried to shelter their children from the worst of it. She remembers being frightened of dust storms, scorpions and rattlesnakes. “But at the same time, it was fun to have playmates right across the way” — something she didn’t have on rural Bainbridge.

From the perspective of adulthood, she finds herself looking at the sheer logistics of this government operation and asking, “How did they pull it off?” And she takes the cautionary tale it offers to heart. “They overstepped the Constitution and put people in prison without a trial,” she says. “It could happen any time, unless we’re ever watchful on what fear can do.”

On a more sanguine note, she points out that the U.S. government, under President Reagan, apologized in the 1980s — and there aren’t many governments, she suspects, that would do that.

Chandler’s first encounter with Adams’ Manzanar photographs came in 2002, when the museum displayed a set of silver gelatin prints from the Fresno Art Museum.

“The museum was smaller and in a remote part of the island back then,” Chandler recalls, “and not a whole lot of people came to see the exhibit. I always thought the images and the story were very strong, and juxtaposing the iconic name of one of the world’s most well-known photographers seemed like a natural for a repeat.”

Manzanar has a particular connection with Bainbridge, Chandler adds, because it was the first destination for relocated Bainbridge Islanders.

Those islanders, he says, were also the first Japanese Americans on the West Coast affected by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued Feb. 19, 1942.

A “Civilian Exclusion Order” was posted on Bainbridge Island on March 24, 1942, and about 275 ethnic-Japanese inhabitants of Bainbridge were sent directly to Manzanar on March 30 in what the exhibit terms a “practice run” for larger-scale relocations that followed. (By the time Adams began his project in 1943, however, internees from Bainbridge had been moved to Minidoka, Idaho.)

Their fellow islanders were shocked; Bainbridge Review editors Walt and Millie Woodward responded with a series of articles protesting the internment, the only editors in Western Washington to do so. Residents promised to watch over property and tend farms until the internees came home, not always the case in the rest of the state.

Manzanar operated between April 1942 and November 1945. At its peak it held more than 10,000 people, making it “the largest wartime ‘city’ between Los Angeles and Reno,” according the National Park Service, which runs Manzanar National Historic Site. Altogether, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated during the war.

“Ansel Adams: A Portrait of Manzanar” isn’t a photography exhibit in the usual sense. Rather than displaying actual prints, the museum has downloaded and mounted high-resolution reproductions of Adams’ portraits of the Japanese Americans he met in Manzanar. It’s artfully assembled in the museum’s limited space, and it isn’t surprising the exhibit has won the Washington Museum Association’s 2011 Award of Exhibit Excellence and the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Award for Exhibition Excellence 2011.

The shots come from a total of 244 that Adams donated to the Library of Congress in 1965, downloadable from the LOC website (www.loc.gov) for free. Also available for free from the website is Adams’ 1944 book, “Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans at Manzanar Relocation Center, Inyo County, California.”

Although Adams photographed the camp’s surroundings and its inhabitants, Chandler focuses with good reason on the portraits. The most striking may be that of electrician Yonehisa Yamagami in a gleeful parody of a classic FDR pose, with hat slung back, a big smile on his face and teeth clenched on a cigarette holder. Yamagami knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s a kick to see him figuratively thumb his nose in amiable defiance of the authorities.

Other subjects direct a much more questioning gaze at the camera. Looking coolly skeptical is Aiko Hamaguchi, a nurse born and raised in the Los Angeles area who in Adams’ book is frank about the perspective her internment-camp experience forced on her: “Only after evacuation have I come to realize the false sense of security I enjoyed prior to the war.”

Then there are the children: the younger ones beaming, glad to have their pictures taken; the older ones more wistful. They’re just kids being kids, keeping to themselves any disquiet they may have about their families’ strange new circumstances.

The adults, however, speak pointedly about their dilemma.

“Because I looked like the enemy,” one internee notes, “I was treated like the enemy.”

Adams’ book has a disquieting history of its own worth noting. While it appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle best-seller list in 1944, it was also subject to public burnings for being “disloyal.” It soon became a rarity, with a first edition now going for $1,500.

The photographs themselves vanished from public view until the 1980s, when John Armor and Peter Wright’s “Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams, Commentary by John Hersey” was published. By that time, Adams had been dead for four years.

A number of informative documentaries and telling novels have dealt with the internment-camp experience, but almost all of them appeared long after the event.

Adams’ photographs and book, by contrast, have the feeling of a time capsule, revealing the atmosphere of the time in ways both conscious and unconscious, capturing this troubling chapter in our history in an unsettling manner that makes it come alive.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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