Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Q&A with Elizabeth Partridge


Elizabeth Partridge is the author of Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams's Photographs Reveal About the Japanese American Incarceration, a new book for older kids. Her many other books include Boots on the Ground.


Q: As the goddaughter of photographer Dorothea Lange, what inspired you to write Seen and Unseen, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: Growing up around my godmother, Dorothea Lange, I was very aware of both her photographs and her politics. Her images were often pinned up on a long wall in the living room or piled on the dining room table to be sorted. Politics were blended into everyday conversations.


And it wasn’t just talk -- she and my godfather, Paul Taylor, both worked hard to make disenfranchised people’s lives better.


After writing several books on Dorothea, the part of Dorothea’s work I still really wanted to know better was her work on the Japanese American incarceration during WWII. Several of her images are icons and reproduced repeatedly, but many aren’t well known.


I knew her friend Ansel Adams had photographed the same camp she had photographed, Manzanar War Relocation Center, and I thought I would use their two sets of images to tell the story of the incarceration.


As I began research, I quickly discovered the photographs of Toyo Miyatake, who was incarcerated at Manzanar. Finding his photos galvanized me. Suddenly I had three very different perspectives to work with.


Q: How would you compare the work of the three photographers you write about, particularly in terms of their photographs of Manzanar?


A: Each photographer had a unique point of view.


Dorothea, because she was outraged by the incarceration and shocked at the suspension of civil liberties, did her best to show how difficult conditions were. 


Toyo initially snuck around with his camera and photographed the guard towers and barbed wire fencing that Dorothea had been forbidden to photograph. Later, when Toyo had been given permission to photograph, he was an insider, welcomed by those he photographed. You can see it in the openness on people’s faces, their relaxed body postures.


Ansel wanted to show how cheerful and resilient people were in the camps, so he took many smiling portraits, and made the camp and the conditions look better than they were.

Q: What do you think illustrator Lauren Tamaki's work contributed to the book?


A: I knew from the beginning of this project that we would need an illustrator to fill in what was happening outside the frame of the photographs: what the photographers had been forbidden to photograph, had chosen not to photograph, or just had not been able to photograph.


The editor, Ariel Richardson at Chronicle Books, found Lauren Tamaki, who agreed to illustrate the book.


Lauren was able to put in things around the photographs, like the forbidden guard towers and barbed wire fencing surrounding the camps, and people stuffing straw into large fabric bags to use as lumpy, scratchy mattresses. She drew the terrible events when the military police fired on a night protest.


Later, she lets us follow the men and boys who slid under the barbed wire fence at the back of the camp, hidden from the watchful eyes of the guards. The prisoners would escape for the day to fish high in the Sierra streams.


Lauren’s drawings also add a beautiful, fluid sense of motion, and an emotional veracity that make me feel I am inside that barbed wire fencing.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: This is our American history, dark as it is. Rather than run from it, we need to own it, which begins by acknowledging it happened. As Dorothea said, “This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we?”


We’ve had a crash course recently in how fragile our democracy is. We’ve learned we need to stay vigilant to keep our democracy living up to the ideals we say we believe in.


We were able to put in a robust back matter where we explore topics for readers to think about. I covered relevant topics, including Why Words Matter, Citizenship Violated, as well as Civil Liberties and the Constitution. Lauren wrote up an incredible section on the Damage of the Model Minority Myth.


I hope readers will also be able to see how different the photographers’ images are, and that each image is just a moment in time, framed to give a certain perspective. A lot can be going on outside that frame!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a picture book on my grandmother, photographer Imogen Cunningham. She was a fine art photographer, and her life’s work was very different than Dorothea’s.


She ran into a number of obstacles in her life, but she never let it stop her from doing her work. That takes a certain kind of grit, and a lot of it came from her childhood, and the support of her father for her dreams.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Titles often come late in the work for me. This one was tough! We wanted a title to include the three photographers’ names, so we were getting pretty long right there.


The editor and I tossed around a lot of ideas, and asked friends and colleagues. Finally, we came up with the idea of Seen and Unseen. For me it contains the idea that things are seen as well as unseen in a photograph. It’s also what is seen and not seen in our recounting of our American history.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Partridge.

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