Francis L. Stewart

Name Francis Leroy Stewart
Born September 4 1909
Died August 23 1992
Birth Location Mesa, AZ

An official WRA photographer from 1942 to 1943, Francis Leroy Stewart (1909–92) was a prolific and skilled photographer who over a twelve month period documented the removal, assembly, incarceration, and resettlement of Japanese Americans during World War II. [1]

Francis L. Stewart was born September 4, 1909, in Mesa, Arizona. He studied at Compton Junior College as well as various art schools before he received his diploma in 1929 in Commercial Art from Frank Wiggins Art School (now Los Angeles Trade-Technical College). According to his son Gene, his father started in art school with the hope of becoming a painter. He was quite self-critical however and when he realized that his talent didn't match his expectations he destroyed much of his painting and decided to pursue photography.

During the first half of the Great Depression, Stewart did commercial art for a variety of businesses. His experience preparing ads for newspapers and magazines apparently gave him professional exposure to cameras and photography. In 1935 Stewart joined the staff of the San Francisco Call Bulletin . He served as head photographer there and also ran the photo and art departments.

From the Call Bulletin , Stewart was hired on a temporary basis by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in May, 1942. Working out of the WRA's San Francisco office, Stewart's title was "Information Specialist," and his primary duty was to "take and handle WRA photos." In hiring him, a WRA bureaucrat mentioned in a letter that Stewart was a skilled photographer whose work was comparable to that of Dorothea Lange .

In October 1942 Stewart was tapped to join the new WRA Photography Section or WRAPS, set up by Tom [Thomas] Parker in the Midland Savings Building in downtown Denver. Stewart arrived in Denver in December 1942 but subsequently left the WRA on May 29, 1943, writing only that his resignation was for "personal reasons." According to his grandson Jeff, his abrupt departure from the job might have been a kind of protest, or at least indicated that Stewart did not want to have any more to do with the project.

Stewart continued his career in photography after the war, starting a number of businesses in the Bay Area. One, on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, was Stewart and Skelton Studios, which he co-owned with partner Robert "Bob" Skelton. Commercial photography was their bread and butter, and Bethlehem Steel was among their clients. In the mid-1950s, however, Stewart came down with a rare disease, akin to multiple sclerosis, which was incurable. His hands were affected and he was no longer able to hold a camera. Stewart retired, lived with family, and had a calm life. He apparently never spoke much to his sons or his niece about his wartime work as an official WRA photographer but his grandson Jeff recalled that Stewart seemed to have been quite shocked at the living conditions in the camps, and felt somewhat guilty to be an accomplice in making the situation appear better than it was.

The online resource, "The Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive" (JARDA), has posted just over one thousand official WRA photos by Francis Stewart. Working over the period of twelve months, Stewart photographed the initial removal of Japanese Americans from California, as well as of WRA administrators and of Japanese American resettlers, but the bulk of his photos are of the ten more permanent WRA camps including Tule Lake , Poston , Topaz , Gila River , and Minidoka . Stewart's photos reflect both an artistic sensibility and analytic eye, as his compositions express a range of sentiments from documentary, to ironic, to humorous, to aesthetic.

Francis Stewart passed away in Willits, California, on August 23, 1992.

Authored by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi , University of California, Los Angeles

For More Information

Francis Stewart Gallery at the Manzanar National Historic Site website, .

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo, with Kenichiro Shimada. Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens: Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA's Photographic Section, 1943–1945 . Photographs by Hikaru Carl Iwasaki. Foreword by Norman Y. Mineta. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2009.

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives (JARDA), .


  1. My main source for this entry is Francis Stewart's official WRA employment records. I would also like to acknowledge, with many thanks, the help and insights offered by his sons, Bob and Gene Stewart, and Stewart's niece Marilyn Davis-Kierscey.

Last updated Jan. 15, 2024, 4:48 a.m..