Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Impounding Archives

The continuing debate over individuals detained by the federal government without access to legal counsel because they are suspected of terrorist activities brings to mind other earlier sad moments in American justice and fail play. A recent book edited by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2006), ISBN 13:978-0-393-06073-7, makes such a connection.

Impounded is an interesting study of both the well-known documentary photographer Lange and the production of photographic images by the federal government. Gordon and Okihiro suggest that even though these photographs have been in the public domain, they nevertheless represent a little known aspect of Lange’s career. Almost none of these images, taken in the early 1940s as Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to camps, have been published. The authors note how the images, capturing a disturbing aspect in our past, were suppressed during the Second World War and, then, “After the war ended, the army quietly placed her internment photographs in the National Archives” (p. 6).

This study provides a brief biographical sketch of Lange, an assessment of her documentary photography, and her general role as one opposed to social injustice and racism. The authors mull over why the War Relocation Authority hired Lange in the first place to document this aspect of their work, then seemingly impeded many of her efforts; this volume suggests that the federal agency desired a record but not one that would be accessible by the public: “A photographic record could protect against false allegations of mistreatment and violations of international law, but it carried the risk, of course, of documenting actual mistreatment” (p. 21).

Gordon, focusing on Lange as photographer in her essay, argues that “Sequestering these photographs deprived not only their author but also Americans as a whole” (p. 37). What I hoped to find in this study was more of an analysis of the subsequent suppressing of the photographs by the federal government and why they have been neglected in the National Archives. The authors thank some archivists for their assistance, so there is no evidence that the National Archives continued to suppress the photographs. There is a clue in a footnote in Gordon’s essay suggesting that that there is little documentation related to the subsequent history of these historical documents: “I have been unable to determine the legal basis and form of this suppression – that is, who made the decision, how it was decided and communicated, and under what authority” (p. 41 fn 1). Too bad. This would be a revealing and intriguing analysis of government restriction to their records and information.