Oakland, March 1942. A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store at 13th and Franklin Streets on Dec. 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The owner, a University of California graduate, was among the Japanese Americans removed from the West Coast. (Dorothea Lange for U.S. War Relocation Authority)

“American Masters — Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lighting” premieres nationwide on Friday, Aug. 29, from 9 to 11 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

In the Los Angeles area, the program will air on PBS SoCal (50.1).

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) began taking documentary photos in 1933. In 1935, the Farm Security Administration hired her as a field investigator and photographer. She became famous for those early images that captured the Dust Bowl and migrant workers and families during the Great Depression.

Hayward, Calif., 1942. All Japanese American “evacuees” were required to wear identification tags. (Dorothea Lange for U.S. War Relocation Authority)

Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” a portrait of a 32-year-old pea picker and three of her seven children in Nipomo, Calif., is one of the most recognized and arresting images in the world.

In 1942, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which declared areas of the country military zones. This led to the forced relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. The U.S. War Relocation Authority hired Lange to document the internment process in the Pacific Coast area. Although she was against it, she felt it was important to record what has happening.

“This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we?” Lange says in the documentary. “Now, I have never had a comfortable feeling about that war relocation job. All the difficulties of doing it were immense.”

“The military didn’t know anything about Dorothea, essentially,” explains Linda Gordon, author of “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.” “They were looking for a photographer and here was someone who was in California. She’d already worked for the government. And had a reputation as being a very hard-working, responsible photographer.

“What the military wanted from her was a set of photographs to illustrate that they weren’t persecuting or torturing these people who they evacuated.”

Lange’s photographs, including shots of Nisei schoolchildren pledging allegiance to the flag, have since become symbols of the injustice of the internment.

Interviewees include Sacramento Bee photojournalist Paul Kitagaki, whose father’s family was among those photographed by Lange. After studying wartime photographs by Lange and others, he found and shot portraits of many of the Japanese Americans who were pictured. The old and new photographs were recently displayed side-by-side at the San Bruno BART Station, adjacent to Tanforan, site of a wartime assembly center. The title was “They Wore Their Best: The Japanese American Evacuation and After.”

“Dorothea Lange was my grandmother,” said director/producer/writer/narrator Dyanna Taylor, an award-winning cinematographer who has also created PBS documentaries about Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “She was brilliant, charismatic, complex and her still camera was her muse. Growing up surrounded by her still photographs, which were everywhere — in stacks, in drawers, tacked up in her workroom — left an indelible impression on me, both personally and artistically. Ever since I began my career in filmmaking, I’ve wanted to make a film which would express the true breadth of her work and the ways she perceived the world.”

For more information or to watch the show online, click here.

San Francisco, April 1942. Children from the Weill public school, from the so-called international settlement, shown in a flag pledge ceremony. Some of them are Japanese Americans who will be interned for the duration of the war. (Photo attributed to Dorothea Lange, part of U.S. War Relocation Authority collection)

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  1. What about a study of the thousands of Italian American Brown Shirts & Germans American Black Shirts marching and shouting “Hail Mussolini” and “Hail Hitler” at Madison Square Garden before WWII?

  2. Mr. Jacobs brings up an interesting issue. I teach a course on WW2 and the German American experience at a local college. The most important issue about German American internment of both world wars that is particularly relevant to the Japanese is the immigration status of the Issei during the second war. Before 9066, the legal precedent labeling the Issei as Enemy Aliens had been set by the experiences of German Americans in WW1. Read up on Ludecke v.watkins. It was the Supreme Court Case about WW2 internment which was brought by a German refugee.

  3. I wonder, I wonder, and I wonder, why Ms Lange was not contracted to also study the internment of thousands of German Americans and Italian Americans who were interned, many in the same camps as the Japanese Americans?