Why the U.S. Photographed Its Own World War II Concentration Camps (and Commissioned Photographs by Dorothea Lange)

During World War II, the United States put thousands and thousands of its own citizens into concentration camps. The wartime internment of Japanese Americans is a well-known historical event, and also an unusually well-documented one — not just in the sense of having been documented copiously, but also with exceptional power and artistry. Much of that owes to the astute photographic observer of early 20th-century America Dorothea Lange, who had already won acclaim for her Great Depression-symbolizing Migrant Mother.

Published in 1936, Migrant Mother was taken under the auspices of the U.S. Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration. In 1941, Lange abandoned a Guggenheim Fellowship to throw in with another government organization, the War Relocation Authority, and turn her lens on the interned. “After Japan’s bombing of the U.S. navy base at Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack that left over 2,000 Americans dead, Japanese Americans became targets of violence and increased suspicion,” says the narrator of the Vox Darkroom video above. Fearing the emergence of a “fifth column,” the government arranged the relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans who had been living on the west coast into remote camps.

“The Roosevelt administration wanted to frame the removal as orderly, humane, and above all, necessary.” Hence the creation of the WRA, a department charged with handling the removal, “and more importantly, documenting it, through propaganda films, pamphlets and news photographs.” The project could hardly have made a more prestigious hire than Lange, who proceeded to photograph “the rapid changes happening in Japanese American communities, including Japanese-owned farms and businesses shutting down.” Her work (see various examples here) captured the final days, even hours, of an established multi-generational society about to be dismantled by the mass evacuation.

The Army disapproved of the narrative created by Lange’s candid photos, many of which were seized and impounded. The offending images depicted armed U.S. soldiers overseeing the removal process, “temporary prisons used while the concentration camps were built,” food lines at the assembly centers, and Japanese Americans in U.S. military uniform. Releasing Lange from the program after just four months, the WRA kept most of her photos out of the public eye. They stayed out of it until a series of exhibitions in the 1970s, which revealed the true nature of the concentration camps. That term is most associated with the Holocaust, to whose sheer destruction of humanity the Japanese American internment cannot, of course, be compared. But as Lange’s photographs show, just having the moral high ground over Nazi Germany is nothing to brag about.

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How Dorothea Lange Shot Migrant Mother, Perhaps the Most Iconic Photo in American History

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A 110-Year-Old Book Illustrated with Photos of Kittens & Cats Taught Kids How to Read


Unlike our 21st-century cat memes and other such online feline-based entertainments, children’s author Eulalie Osgood Grover’s 1911 work, Kittens and Cats: A First Reader was intended to educate.

Its related poems will almost certainly strike those of us whose understanding of feline attitude has been shaped by LOLCatsGrumpy Cat, the existential Henri, Talking Kitty Cat’s acerbic Sylvester, and the mordant 1970s TV spokescat Morris as sweet to the point of sickly. But it boasts six hundred vocabulary words, a rhyme structure that promotes reading aloud, and a note to teachers with suggestions for classroom activities.

Grover explained how her feline cast of characters would win over even the most reluctant reader, inspiring “much the same delight to the little reader of juvenile fiction, as do adventure and romance to the grown-up reader”:

In one respect kittens take precedence over dolls. They are alive. They must be treated kindly. They will not bear the abuse and neglect given to many beautiful dolls. They demand attention and companionship, and they return a real devotion in return for kindness and care. Therefore we love them and especially do our children love them and delight in stories of them.

The loosely structured story concerns a grand party thrown by the Queen of the Cats. Following some breathless preparations, the guests take turns introducing themselves to her majesty, though unlike T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), there’s not much that could be cobbled into a hit musical.

Grover fleshes out the narrative with callbacks to a number of cat-rich nursery rhymes — Hickory Dickory DockThree Little KittensHey Diddle DiddleAs I Was Going to St. IvesDing Dong Bell

One lace-bonneted character is reminiscent of Tom Kitten’s mother, Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, and her unsuccessful attempts to wrangle her rambunctious offspring into clothing fit for “fine company,” though the wit falls somewhat short of Beatrix Potter’s.

Headgear abounds, as do restrictive buntings that must’ve been a great help when dealing with uncooperative models and long exposures.

Although the photographer is uncredited, the images are likely the work of Harry Whittier Frees, a “pioneer of the anthropomorphic kitten photograph genre” as per the New York Daily News. In his introduction to his far more ambitiously posed 1915 work, The Little Folks of Animal Land, Frees alluded to his process:

The difficulties of posing kittens and puppies for pictures of this kind have been overcome only by the exercise of great patience and invariable kindness. My little models receive no especial training, and after their daily performance before the camera they enjoy nothing more than a good frolic about the studio.

That’s a pleasant thought, though historian and postcard collector Mary L. Weigley tells a somewhat different tale in an article for Pennsylvania Heritage, describing how only 3/10 of his negatives could be published, and his work was so “challenging, time-consuming and nerve-wracking” that he took 9 months out of every year to recuperate.


Download a free copy of Eulalie Osgood Grover’s Kittens and Cats here.

via Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold the Photographs of John Thomson, the First Western Photographer to Travel Widely Through China (1870s)

In the early 1860s, a few Westerners had seen China — but nearly all of them had seen it for themselves. The still-new medium of photography had yet to make images of everywhere available to viewers everywhere else, which meant an opportunity for traveling practitioners like John Thomson. “The son of a tobacco spinner and shopkeeper,” says BBC.com, ” he was apprenticed to an Edinburgh optical and scientific instrument manufacturer where he learned the basics of photography.”

In 1862 Thomson sailed from Leith “with a camera and a portable dark room. He set up in Singapore before exploring the ancient civilizations of China, Thailand — then known as Siam — and Cambodia.” It is for his extensive photography of China in the late 1860s and early 1870s that he’s best known today.

First lavishly published in a series of books titled Illustrations of China and Its People (now available to read free online at the Yale University Library: volume one, volume two, volume three, volume four), they now constitute some of the earliest and richest direct visual records of Chinese landscapes, cityscapes, and society as they were in the late 19th century.

“The first Western photographer to travel widely through the length and breadth of China,” Thomson brought his camera on journeys “far more extensive than those undertaken by most Westerners of his generation,” extending “beyond the relative comfort and safety of the coastal treaty ports.” Those words come from scholar of the 19th-century Allen Hockley, whose five-part visual essay “John Thomson’s China” at MIT Visualizing Cultures provides a detailed overview and historical contextualization of Thomson’s work in Asia.

Thomson’s photographs, writes Hockley, “fall into two broad categories: scenic views and types. Views encompassed both natural landscapes and built environments. They could be panoramic, taking in large swaths of scenery, or they might highlight specific natural phenomena or individual structures.”

Types “focused on the manners and customs of Chinese people and tended to highlight the defining features of gender, age, class, ethnicity, and occupation.” A century and a half later, both Thomson’s views and types have given scholars in a variety of disciplines much to discuss.

“It is clear from his commentary to Illustrations of China that, however sympathetic he was towards Chinese people, he could often be superior and high-handed,” writes Andrew Hiller at Visualizing China. “If Thomson never sought to question the validity of Britain’s presence, his attitude towards China was ambivalent. Whilst critical of what he saw as the corruption and obfuscation of Qing officials, he nevertheless could see the country’s potential.”

Thomson also helped others to see that potential — or at least those who could afford to buy his books, whose prices matched the quality of their production. But today, thanks to online archives like Historical Photographs of China and Wellcome Collection, they’re free for everyone to behold. China itself has become much more accessible since Thomson’s day, of course, but it’s famously a much different place than it was 25 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. The land through which he traveled — and of which he took so many of the very earliest photographs — is now infinitely less accessible to us than it ever was to his fellow Westerners of the 19th century.

Hear a lecture on Thomson’s photography in China from the University of London here.

via Flashbak

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Meet Tsuneko Sasamoto, Japan’s First Female Photojournalist and Now, at 107, Japan’s Oldest Living Photojournalist

You should never become lazy. It’s essential to remain positive about your life and never give up. You need to push yourself and stay aware, so you can move forward. 

— Tsuneko Sasamoto

Sound advice whether one is interested in sustaining a creative practice or remaining vigorous as one ages.

Photographer Tsuneko Sasamoto is an excellent poster child for both. Born in Tokyo in 1914, shortly after the beginning of the first World War, she is Japan’s first female photojournalist and — at 107, its oldest living photojournalist.

Her traditional father thwarted her hopes of becoming a painter, but early encounters with a black-and-white film by Man Ray and the work of Margaret Bourke-White suggested that photography might prove a similarly fulfilling path.

By 1940, she was able to parlay a job as a part-time illustrator on the local news pages at Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun (now known as the Mainichi Shimbun) into a probationary gig as a shooter, though as a young woman, she was constrained by gender expectations.

Unlike her male counterparts, she was not allowed to document WWII at the front. Instead, she was charged with special interest stories of a patriotic nature and portraits of diplomatic envoys. She deeply resented her professionally mandated uniform — skirts and heels that occasionally hampered her from getting the shot.

Her ambition benefited from a stubbornly defiant streak. An article in The Japan Times details how she weathered discriminatory comments, resisted male family members’ scripts, and, in 1947, piped up to ask General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, if he would grant her a redo when her camera malfunctioned at the ribbon cutting ceremony he was attending.

Other subjects from her eight decades-long career:

Student protesters

The wives of coal miners who were on strike against the then-largest coal mine in Japan

Young women training to be geisha

The Imperial Family

Socialist Party head Inejiro Asanuma the day before his 1960 assassination

A who’s who of Japanese novelists, poets, and artists

The 2011 earth quake and tsunami

And, for her exhibit 100 Women at the Japanese Camera Industry Institute, she included some notable survivors of the Meiji and early Showa eras, such as Queen of the Blues, Noriko Awaya. As Sasamoto recalled:

I photographed her toward the end of her life when she was in her eighties and bedridden. I was one of the few allowed to see her at that time, I think because I was born in the Taisho era (1912-26) and she felt I could understand her…. She kept telling me, ‘I am not formidable.’

Shortly after turning 100, Sasamoto weighed in on digital cameras — their lighter weight made them easy to carry around, but their functions were difficult to understand.

As for her health regimen: maintaining contact with family and friends, a daily piece of chocolate, a glass of red wine every night, and way more red meat than recommended.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Is the Famous Photo of Lee Harvey Oswald Posing with the Gun Used to Kill JFK a Fake?: 3D Forensic Analysis Reveals the Answer

As long as the 20th century remains in living memory, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will continue to draw public interest. A great many Americans feel they still haven’t heard the “whole story” behind what happened on November 22, 1963; a few have dedicated their lives to finding out, growing less inclined to accept the possibility of a lone gunman the deeper they get into the documents. But that gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, does figure directly into some of the material held up as evidence of a conspiracy. Take the “backyard photos” that depict him posing with what was ultimately found to be the very gun used to kill JFK.

Such images would seem strongly to implicate Oswald in the assassination, and the Warren Commission seems to have regarded them in just that way. But for nearly six decades now, some theorists have argued that the backyard photos are fake — an idea that began with Oswald himself, who before his own assassination insisted that he’d never seen them in his life, and that someone had “superimposed” his face onto another body.

The Vox video above lays out the main elements of one particular picture that have been called repeatedly into question: the angles of the shadows, the shape of Oswald’s chin, the length of the gun, and Oswald’s unusual posture.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, forensic experts tried just about everything to test the authenticity of this photo,” says the video’s narrator. They couldn’t find any evidence of fakery, but they didn’t have the 21st-century technology at the command of the UC Berkeley School of Information’s Hany Farid, a well-known specialist in the analysis of digital images. Farid and a team of researchers reconstructed Oswald’s body and weaponry (though not the copies of The Militant and The Worker, two ideologically opposed newspapers, he brandished in his other hand) and found that everything added up, from the seemingly misaligned shadows cast by the sun to the stability of his odd stance. If there was indeed a conspiracy to kill JFK, then, it wasn’t a conspiracy of proto-Photoshoppers.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Mushroom Time-Lapses Are Filmed: A Glimpse Into the Pioneering Time-Lapse Cinematography Behind the Netflix Documentary Fantastic Fungi

Mushrooms are having a moment, thanks in part to pioneering time-lapse cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg’s documentary Fantastic Fungi.

Now streaming on Netflix, the film has given rise to a bumper crop of funghi fantatics, who sprang up like, well, mushrooms, to join the existing ranks of citizen scientistsculinary fansweekend foragersamateur growers, and spiritual seekers.

Schwartzberg, who earlier visualized pollination from the flower’s point of view in the Meryl Streep-narrated Wings of Life, is a true believer in the power of mushrooms, citing funghi’s role in soil creation and health, and their potential for remedying a number of pressing global problems, as well as a host of human ailments.

Fantastic Funghi focuses on seven pillars of benefits brought to the table by the fungal kingdom and its Internet-like underground network of mycelium:

  1. Biodiversity

A number of projects are exploring the ways in which the mycelium world can pull us back from the bring of  desertization, water shortage, food shortage, bee colony collapsetoxic contaminants, nuclear disasters, oil spills, plastic pollution, and global warming.

  1. Innovation

Mushroom-related industries are eager to press funghi into service as environmentally sustainable faux leatherbuilding materials, packaging, and meat alternatives.

  1. Food

From fine dining to foraging off-the-grid, mushrooms are prized for their culinary and nutritional benefits.

  1. Physical Health and Wellness

Will the humble mushroom prove mighty enough to do an end run around powerful drug companies as a source of integrative medicine to help combat diabetes, liver disease, inflammation, insomnia and cognitive decline?

  1. Mental Health

Researchers at Johns HopkinsUCLA, and NYU are running clinical trials on the benefits of psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms as a tool for treating addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation.

  1. Spirituality

Of course, there’s also a rich tradition of religions and individual seekers deploying mind altering psychoactive mushrooms as a form of sacrament or a tool for plumbing the mysteries of life.

  1. The Arts

Director Schwartzberg understandably views mushrooms as muse, a fitting subject for photography, music, film, poetry, art and other creative endeavors.


With regard to this final pillar, many viewers may be surprised to learn how much of the 15 years Schwartzberg dedicated to capturing the exquisite cycle of fungal regeneration and decomposition took place indoors.

As he explains in the Wired video above, his precision equipment excels at capturing development that’s invisible to the human eye, but is no match for such natural world disruptions as insects and wind.

Instead, he and his team built controlled growing environments, where highly sensitive time lapse cameras, dollies, timed grow lights, and more cinematic lighting instruments could be left in place.

Set dressings of moss and logs, coupled with a very short depth of field helped to bring the Great Outdoors onscreen, with occasional chromakeyed panoramas of the natural world filling in the gaps.

Even in such lab-like conditions, certain elements were necessarily left to chance. Mushrooms grow notoriously quickly, and even with constant monitoring and calculations, there was plenty of potential for one of his stars to miss their mark, shooting out of frame.

Just one of the ways that mushrooms and humans operate on radically different timelines. The director bowed to the shrooms, returning to square one on the frequent occasions when a sequence got away from him.

Providing viewers an immersive experience of the underground mycelium network required high powered microscopes, a solid cement floor, and a bit of movie magic to finesse. What you see in the final cut is the work of CGI animators, who used Schwartzberg’s footage as their blueprint.

Netflix subscribers can stream Fantastic Fungi for free.

From October 15 – 17, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg is hosting a free, virtual Fantastic Fungi Global Summit. Register here.

You can also browse his collection of community mushroom recipes and submit your own, download Fantastic Fungi’s Stoned Ape poster, or have a ramble through a trove of related videos and articles in the Mush Room.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Brood X Cicadas are her mushrooms. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Illustrated History of Depeche Mode by Anton Corbijn

Last year, photographer Anton Corbijn released a new book, MOOD/MODE, showcasing work outside the boundaries of the rock photography world in which he’d made his name. But no matter whom he’s photographing, Corbijn brings a high seriousness to the endeavor that he explains as part of his religious upbringing in the book’s introduction. “My Protestant background always marked & influenced my portrait photography. Mankind. Humanity. Empathy,” he writes, were the ideals he absorbed as a child. Such beliefs “kept me from doing work that lacked a deeper purpose.”

Corbijn grew up in a small village outside Rotterdam, Jean-Jacques Naudet writes. “His father and many other male members of his family were pastors. Life was strict and simple, on Sunday everybody dressed in black. Religion was omnipresent.”

He moved away to the city and began taking photos of the music scene at 17. But the look and feel of his early life never left him. It was this aesthetic that attracted Depeche Mode, one of Corbijn’s longest-running musical collaborators and a band who were no strangers to brooding in black and making religious references and appeals to humanity.

“We were seen as just a pop band,” says Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore. “We thought that Anton had a certain seriousness, a certain gravity to his work, that would help us get away from that.” Corbijn first helped them refine their look in mid-80s and “was able to give the Depeche Mode sound, that we were beginning to create, a visual identity,” says singer Dave Gahan. That identity is now the subject of a new book from Taschen that collects “over 500 photographs from Anton Corbijn’s personal archives,” notes the arts publisher, “some never seen before, as well as stage set designs, sketches, album covers, and personal observations” about the “world’s biggest cult band.”

Corbijn became such an integral part of Depeche Mode’s success, the band considered him “a veritable unseen member of the group,” writes Post-Punk.com, mediating their image not only through photography but also live projections and, of course, music videos. They were able to achieve “a kind of cult status,” says Gore in the mini-documentary above, which also has an interview with Corbijn. The photographer walks us through his history with the legendary synth pioneers (whom he did not like at first), beginning with the first image he shot of them in 1981, when founder Vince Clarke was still in the band.

Clarke leans behind Gahan’s left shoulder, the full band framed by a stone arch. To Gahan’s right is an enormous crucifix. It set a tone for the working relationship to come. “There has to be an element of the person in the photograph,” says Corbijn of his portraiture, “but there also has to be an element of the photographer.” It took another few years after that first shoot, he tells The Guardian, but he realized “how good their music and my visuals actually went together…. They had soul.” You can order a copy of the new book, Depeche Mode by Anton Corbijn from Taschen here.

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Watch 400+ Documentaries from German Broadcaster Deutsche Welle: Art Forgery, Fashion Photography, the Mona Lisa, and More

You’re certainly familiar with Nouvelle Vague, the “French new wave” that shook up world cinema in the mid-2oth century. You’ve probably also heard of Hallyu, the “Korean wave” of pop music and television dramas (and, increasingly, films) now crashing across not just Asia but the West. As for Deutsche Welle, literally the “German wave,” you may know the term better in its abbreviated form: DW, the brand of Germany’s public international broadcaster. Here on Open Culture we’ve previously featured DW’s series Bauhaus World, a celebration of that influential German school of art, architecture, and design, but it’s just one of 415 documentaries free to watch on the DW Documentary Youtube channel.

DW’s documentarians have a thoroughly international mandate, as evidenced by their popular examinations of the dictatorial regime of North Korea, Bulgaria’s Roma marriage market, extravagant wealth in central Africa, and dire poverty in the United States. You can also browse the archive through themed playlists ranging from politics and economics to human nature and society to culture and arts.

That last section, no doubt of particular interest to Open Culture readers, demonstrates DW’s advantage as a long-standing broadcaster situated in the heart of Europe. Where better to start learning about Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, top electronic dance music DJs, Martin Luther and the Reformation, or the truth behind the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa?

Even more interest lies in DW’s explorations of lesser-known topics like the treasures of Turkmenistan, fakery in the art world, and Berlin’s Little Hanoi. There are also profiles of such German figures as Peter Lindbergh, the late fashion and advertising photographer counted as an inspiration by the likes of Wim Wenders, and Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, outgoing president of the Goethe-Institut, a natural subject for DW to cover. Founded within a couple of years of one another, both DW and the Goethe-Institut take the promotion of German culture abroad as a large part of their mission — and both do so in the knowledge that, to get other societies interested in your culture, you’ve got to show genuine interest in all of theirs as well. Explore the complete list of DW documentaries here. And find more documentaries online in our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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285 Free Documentaries Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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