Manbo's images of camp life included Japanese cultural activities. (© 2012 Takeo Bill Manbo)
Bill Manbo’s images of life at Heart Mountain included Bon Odori and other Japanese cultural activities. (© 2012 Takeo Bill Manbo)

“Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II” opens to the public at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street) in Little Tokyo, on Saturday, May 3, at 2 p.m. and runs through Aug. 31.

The exhibition presents 18 rare Kodachrome photographs taken by Bill Manbo (1908-1992) during his incarceration at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming in 1943 and 1944. It shatters preconceptions about this episode of injustice by showing it to us in vivid and beautiful color.

Billy Manbo clutches a barbed-wire fence. (© 2012 Takeo Bill Manbo)
Billy Manbo, the photographer’s son, clutches a barbed-wire fence. (© 2012 Takeo Bill Manbo)

Manbo was ahead of his time — while others were shooting in black-and-white, he shot in Kodachrome, a technology then in its infancy. The images are a paradox: vibrant, gorgeous photographs of a bleak historical episode.

“Colors of Confinement” jars settled understandings of Japanese American incarceration. The images are not only beautiful, they show imprisoned Japanese Americans engaging in both culturally Japanese and culturally American activities, thus expanding many viewers’ appreciation of the range of cultural practices that were common in the camps.

Their brilliant color also strips away the sense that these are “historical” photographs; the pictured events look as though they could be happening today. While the images allow greater emotional connection with the pictured subjects than many black-and-white photographs do, they also interrogate and complicate viewers’ common assumptions about the nature of life behind barbed wire.

The book of the same title, available at the Museum Store, showcases 65 stunning images from Manbo’s collection, presented along with three interpretive essays by leading scholars Eric Muller, Jasmine Alinder and Lon Kurashige, and a reflective, personal essay by a former Heart Mountain internee, Bacon Sakatani.

A member preview of the exhibit will be held on May 3 from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. RSVP to or call (213) 830-5657.

Also on view at the museum are “Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game,” “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World,” and “Common Ground: The Heart of Community.”

Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, from 12 to 8 p.m. Closed Monday, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission is $9 general, $5 for seniors (62 and over), students (with ID) and youth (6-17), free for children 5 and under and museum members. Free admission every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. and every third Thursday of the month.

For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit

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