Restoring Dorothea Lange’s ‘I Am An American’
Over the past couple months, I’ve been working on digitizing, restoring, and printing ten of Dorothea Lange’s negatives from the National Archives.
I selected negatives from our previously sold-out editions—the most popular images—and added two new images not previously available. While the 11 × 14 editions remain sold out and will not be extended, I’m issuing two new sizes on a beautiful new paper, and as before, half of the proceeds will be donated to protect the rights of immigrants. More on that below.
Take a look at the new editions today. I’m quite happy with how they turned out, and I hope you’ll appreciate the care that went into the restorations and prints, too.
Finding ‘I Am An American’
The most exciting discovery during this project was coming across the original frame of Lange’s ‘I Am An American’ photograph. Until now, the only versions I could track down were a scan of a print held by the Library of Congress—the source for our edition of 100 prints that sold out very quickly—and two related shots of the same building from other viewpoints.
In the other photographs, you can see that above the storefront is a large SOLD sign, which suggests more to the story behind this image. I had seen a wider crop of the straight-on shot, but I had not been able to track down a version suitable for printing.
The Wanto Co. grocery store
Lange first photographed Wanto Co. grocery in Oakland’s previously-thriving Japantown neighborhood on March 13, 1942, shortly after its owner, Tatsuro Masuda decided to close the store which his father had opened in 1916. Lange’s original captions provide a bit more context:
Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store, at [8th] and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war
March 30, 1942 8th-Franklin St Oakland Japanese-owned Grocery Store. It has been closed. Owner voluntarily evacuated at the last moment before the “Freezing order” to Fresno where he has relatives. He is U.C. graduate, born in California. I asked him “who put up that sign?” He said “a sign painter but I paid for it, the day after Pearl Harbor”
Masuda, who was born in Oakland, was likely as horrified by the Pearl Harbor attacks as all of his neighbors. Sensing the cresting tide of anti-Japanese sentiment, he quickly commissioned and installed the sign the next day proclaiming, “I AM AN AMERICAN.”
Two months after the attacks, Masuda married his wife, Hatsue Kuge, and three weeks after that, Roosevelt issued E.O. 9066 triggering mandatory “evacuations,” of Japanese residents and Japanese-American citizens. Masuda decided to close the store and move inland with family near Fresno, California. On August 7, Masuda and his wife were incarcerated, ending up at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. While living in the concentration camp, Hatsue gave birth to their son Walter and their daughter Laverne.
Masuda was released on August 10, 1944 and went to Cleveland, Ohio, most likely to search for work. His wife and their children were released in October, heading to Madison, Wisconsin. The family eventually settled together in Utah, where Masuda ran a gasoline service station until he retired. Like most imprisoned residents of Oakland’s Japantown, the Masuda family never returned to Oakland.
It took some help from the kind staff at the National Archives Still Picture Branch, but they located a copy negative of the original frame, which I carefully digitized, restored, and printed.
When I began this project, I wanted to sell prints to raise funds to support the ACLU and their continued efforts to protect the civil liberties of the oppressed. The ACLU fought against the Japanese incarceration in the 1940s, and today they are working alongside a number of great organizations to protect the rights of immigrants and challenge unlawful executive orders like President Trump’s self-proclaimed “Muslim Ban.”
One of those organizations is the National Immigration Law Center, which works to protect the rights of Americans, particularly low-income immigrants and their families. Along with the ACLU and other organizations, the NILC case, IRAP v. Trump successfully blocked Trump’s Muslim ban, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case and has prevented the ban from taking effect in the interim.
While the NILC has achieved victories in protecting immigrant rights, they do not have the large budget and support like organizations like the ACLU, and so I’m happy to announce that proceeds from these new larger editions will be donated to the NILC. I’ll continue to donate proceeds from the remaining 11 x 14 editions to the ACLU, and as I wrote a couple weeks ago, I’m hopeful that we can reach $50,000 in donations to the ACLU soon, and I’m hoping—with your help—that we can now support the NILC in their great work at the local, state, and national levels to protect the rights of low-income immigrants and their families.
With any restoration work, there’s a delicate balance between repairing a damaged or dirty negative, and changing the content and meaning of the image. Some of the negatives I worked with were reasonably clean, and only required a small amount of dust removal, while for others, quite a bit of restoration was required to remove bad scratches and holes that have occurred over time.
For some images, I removed debris, but left other marks like fingerprints or bends in the film that cause lighter spots and regions on the image, as attempting to remove those marks would have altered the image more than I cared to. Hopefully you’ll agree that the images respect Dorothea Lange’s careful attention to composition of her frame and the emotion and humanity of her subjects.
For these ten new restorations, I’m issuing larger editions that are possible thanks to the high-resolution digitizations that I was able to create. They are available in an edition of 100 prints sized at 17 × 22 inches (an image size of roughly 15 × 20 inches, plus a suitable margin for hand-numbering and framing), along with an edition of 50 prints at 34 × 44 inches (an image size of 30 × 40 inches).
After trying a number of papers for these new editions, I selected Legion Paper’s Moab Juniper Baryta Rag paper. This heavyweight archival paper is 100% cotton, made in the USA, with a traditional baryta coating, made the same way and with the same materials as the best traditional fibre-based darkroom printing papers. The paper has a slightly glossy luster surface texture reminiscent of traditional high-end fibre-based silver prints, and allows deep yet detailed blacks, and smooth bright highlights without the use of optical brightening agents.
I think you’ll love the look and feel of this paper and these prints as much as I do.