Mortar Impact (2003-04) is one of the most seemingly unremarkable images from An-My Lê’s series “29 Palms” (2004), taken in the southern California desert during military training exercises at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. For all its rich detail and elegant composition, the photograph is entirely unyielding about its true subject. There is the barren earth, the obvious but unexplained traces of human presence and little else.
This simultaneous paucity and surfeit of information is a hallmark of An-My Lê’s photographs. In a literal sense, her subject is always evident, yet the photograph’s subtexts remain deeply concealed. In the same series, Captain Folsom (2003-04) shows the titular commander addressing a cadre of helmeted soldiers on a hill in the foreground; in the center of the photograph, four tanks accompanied by three Humvees are stationed on a low ridgeline, their cannons aimed at an unidentified enemy in the same undistinguished landscape. In Infantry Platoon, Attack (2003-04), miniscule clusters of running soldiers and a truck convoy dot a panoramic vista.
Though Lê describes herself as a “living 19th-century photographer”—she lugs around a wooden, large-format five-by-seven Deardorff camera on her far-flung travels—this is only true in regard to her equipment and her technique. More than just posing the postmodern cliché of blurring the real and the unreal, Lê’s photographs depict a world where that distinction is no longer clear. There is no distortion of the truth, no manipulation, only an unnervingly candid picture of things as they are. The hills of southern California become the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, a military-base parking lot serves as a foreign embassy compound, actors and soldiers play at being suspected insurgents. The confusion resides in reality itself, not in the picture.
On a Monday in early May, An-My Lê (see AAP 43, 44, 59) and film director Michael Almereyda conversed at the Mid-Manhattan Library following a screening of the “Protest” episode from the fourth season of the television series, Art:21: Art in the Twenty-First Century, that featured Lê’s work. During the question-and-answer session, Lê’s six-year-old son, Jack, blurted out the question that had been skirted all evening: “Mom, what is it about?” The crowd chuckled politely and Lê looked taken aback, repeating the question rhetorically before answering: “It’s about my trying to make sense of the complicated life I’ve had.”
As a child, Lê lived through much of the Vietnam War. Born in 1960 in Saigon, she has vivid memories of the conflict. At the Art:21 conversation, Lê recounted how her great-grandmother survived the bombing of her own house by sheer happenstance, having spent the night at Lê’s family’s house. She recalled arriving at her school early one morning to find only a smoking crater and a mangled gate, remnants of a mortar attack. Speaking about her youth, Lê is measured, almost nonchalant: “War was a part of our lives. We never really questioned it. War was something you had to live through.”
In 1968, Lê’s mother received a scholarship to study English literature and feminism at the Sorbonne in Paris. Lê and her two brothers accompanied her during the five-year course. Lê’s father, who founded a teachers’ college in Huê and taught American Studies at a teachers’ college in Saigon, remained in Vietnam to guarantee that the family would come back. Lê jokes, “We were the only Vietnamese family to come back to Vietnam—this was 1972—while everyone else was trying to escape.” Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the family was evacuated by the American military and entered the US as political refugees. Lê describes the experience as “an adventure, being chased by cops and ending up on a plane, shuttling between Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to Wake Island, to Guam and to Camp Pendleton.” Lê remembers her eventual arrival in Huntington Beach in southern California, as “bewildering, quite a disjuncture. It took me a long time to feel like an American, but I do now, especially after returning to Vietnam in 1994.”
As Lê recounts, she worked hard to attain professional success, pursuing a career in medicine. She attended Stanford as an undergraduate and later earned a masters degree in biology, during which time she enrolled in an elective photography class. “To my surprise, the class completely took over my life,” Lê told New Yorker writer Hilton Als in an interview. A Francophile like her parents, Lê returned to Paris in 1986 and worked for four years at a sculpture guild photographing projects and traveling around the country. She moved to New York in 1990 and attended graduate school at Yale from 1991 to 1993, where she continued to photograph sculpture studios and foundries.
A portfolio of Lê’s student work—along with those of every other MFA graduate of the Yale photography program—is housed in the Art of the Book Collection, shelved, until the recent opening of a new arts library, in a cloistered room in Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, Connecticut. Among the two series of large, loose prints in the portfolio, “In Stone” (1992-93) depicts objects found in various sculpture workshops and foundries, suggesting a continuation of Lê’s work for the Paris sculpture guild. Yet the other untitled series in the portfolio, begun in Lê’s last semester at Yale, marks an evident shift toward the direction of her later work. These visual amalgamations of Lê’s life were made by inserting cut-out pictures of Vietnamese figures, artworks and places into found chemistry glassware and then photographing them close up. In one, a cut-out image of a young boy with a piercing gaze is trapped in the bottom of a bulbous Florence flask, next to a photograph of an ornate arch distorted by the rounded container. Visually striking against their black backdrops, the best images in the series use the curvature of the glass to make the floating images contained within appear ominous and surreal. Lê explained in an enclosed statement: “Through the photographs of constructed still lifes, I have tried to create visual metaphors for cultural dislocation. Using organic chemistry glassware and appropriated images, I have been working like an archeologist. These photographs draw on a synthesis of my experience as a scientist and my identity as a Vietnamese woman raised in different cultures.”
The class of 1993 included both Lê’s future husband, John Pilson, and Dawoud Bey, an older, experienced photographer and articulate writer. Bey penned the introduction to a collaborative class project called the “Gray Photography Project,” selections from each photographer’s portfolio bound in gray-covered folios. He observed: “We stand at the juncture of a critical moment in photography’s history. Buffeted by the extraordinary technological innovations of computers and digital imaging on the one hand, and the influx of recent theoretical and critical discourse on the other, the medium is once again poised to redefine itself… What exists, I believe, is a climate in which other voices are pushing at the boundaries of the medium, expanding the definitions of photographic practice while providing new possibilities for picture-making.” Pilson echoed both Bey’s and Lê’s comments when he wrote in the introduction to his portfolio of color photos, “Profound Inconsequence” (1993): “I belong to a generation…described as existing in between. Having been told so often by the older and more experienced that ‘I was there,’ we are merely searching for ways in which to say ‘I am here.’” As the three most successful photographers in the class, Lê, Pilson and Bey, have each—in their own ways—adhered to that mindset of working within traditions that came before their time by re-inventing genre conventions.
Following graduation, Lê traveled to Vietnam in 1994 for the first time since her family fled two decades before. Lê intended to collect objects for her autobiographical still-life photographs, but she switched projects—in her words, “as soon as I got there”—and traveled around the country photographing places she remembered and towns in the north where her family had personal connections.
One of the first prints from the resulting series, “Viet Nam” (1994-98), is an enigmatic, soft-focus, vertical portrait of a young Vietnamese girl who stares at something off-camera. Lê suggests that it might be a self-portrait. In the pictures that followed over the next four years, Lê developed her signature style: fantastically detailed photographs of the landscape. Stripped of artifice or manipulation, the “Viet Nam” photographs reflect an expansive, empty feeling of space that suggests myriad untold stories and relationships torn apart by disaster. The viewer participates in the photographer’s search for clues, for example, in pictures of a two-story house in Hanoi with a lush garden; two children tending an orchard; and a winding, foot-trod path through a vegetable patch. Though rare, there are vestiges of the war, as Lê captures in Untitled, Soc Son (1996), a bullet-marked house overlooking rice paddies, and the collapsed brick buildings beyond a thriving farm in Untitled, But Thap (1996).
Her vast landscapes are dotted by a few solitary figures. Untitled, Ho Chi Minh City (1998) shows a sliver of the earth populated by kite-fliers and onlookers with wind-blown palms in the background. The sky is filled with blurred kites that resemble birds. The sense of emptiness reappears in Untitled, Hanoi (1998): a single white desk with a metal chair and a wooden chair in an empty, high-ceilinged room. There is wire on the windows and a view of the surrounding rooftops. What has happened to make the place so empty is left unexplained.
Dawoud Bey’s 1993 observation feels appropriate in the context of Lê’s pictures: “As the possibilities for expression within the medium expand it becomes imperative to consider the ways in which pictures become a response to the historical moment and the personal conditions of the photographers producing the work.” Perhaps the most acclaimed image of Lê’s series, Untitled, Ho Chi Minh City (1995), shows boats on a river whose shoreline is crowded by massive billboards reading “SANYO,” “HITACHI,” “XEROX” and “NOKIA.”
Lê next turned her attention to war and its implied absence in “Small Wars” (1999-2002), black-and-white images of battle scenes. Rescue captures a crashed airplane shrouded in smoke. The pilot hangs inertly from the cockpit window as three GIs crouch in firing positions and a central figure operates a field radio. InTall Grass I and II, camouflaged figures carrying rifles are obscured by shoulder-height weeds; in Sniper I, an Asian-looking figure sets his sights on three patrolling soldiers in what appears to be the moment before he pulls the trigger.
Differing from the elegiac pictures from “Viet Nam,” this series discovers war where it shouldn’t—and doesn’t—exist, in the northeastern United States. Lê’s pictures of Vietnam War re-enactors in the American forests record the extent to which these hobbyists go to recreate a war in which few—if any—of them participated, though many of them experienced the war second-hand from fathers and brothers who had distinguished themselves in combat or died in the conflict. Aside from the action shots, Lê captures the soldiers sleeping, their tents, cots, equipment and, in a rare move, even shows herself sitting on a log, sketching out a plan with one of the figures. As part of her invitation to join the group, Lê was required to participate in the simulations, playing the roles of a Vietcong insurgent, a Vietnamese turncoat, a sniper girl, a captured prisoner or the lone guerrilla in a booby-trapped village awaiting American GIs. Though Lê was accompanied by her friend and former Yale professor, Lois Conner, her family felt some trepidation about her spending time in the woods with paramilitaries. In fact, many of these men had the same goal as Lê: sorting out their relationships to the Vietnam War.
Following this series, Lê embarked on the “29 Palms” project after she realized it was too late to become an embedded photographer in the Iraq War. Even though the pictures were taken in the southern California desert, they embody an uneasy tension in their documentation of robed, Arab-looking men herded together by American soldiers or young men playing the role of Iraqi police. One of the most puzzling details of the series is the graffiti that Lê captures in the two pictures titled Security and Stabilization Operations, Graffiti (2003-04). Spray-painted onto the side of ranch-style structures used for training exercises are the phrases “Go Home GI,” “Death to America,” “Kill Bush” (“Kill” is circled for emphasis), “Good Saddam,” “Down USA” and “Go Away!” Intended to add authenticity to the feeble simulation, the phrases suggest a naiveté about the actual conditions the soldiers will face. This corner of Iraq in the Mojave more closely resembles a suburban neighborhood of abandoned homes—images familiar following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or America’s current mortgage crisis—than the urban conditions of Sadr City or Basra.
Although her connections in the military allowed her to visit places ordinarily closed to civilians, Lê insists that her photographs are “not about access.” Their air of neutrality is their strength: “There’s no complicity, but I think what happens is that my work is not the outward political work where it’s so obvious that I’m against or for the military,” she observes. Even as she expresses great respect for the military, Lê says: “I am not categorically against war but I think we need to try to avoid it as much as possible.”
Her recent series “Events Ashore,” which premiered at New York’s Murray Guy Gallery in early 2008, put the full scope of Lê’s access on view. Color photographs of the military’s non-combat operations in the Antarctic filled one gallery. Among them was Abandoned Dome, South Pole, Antarctica (2008) captures a geodesic dome nearly submerged in snow drifts. Except for a red tower on the left, it is a largely monochromatic picture; a flat, white landscape stretches out in all directions.
In Murray Guy’s other room, Lê’s pictures focus on the military’s presence at sea. Also shot in color, these images show hydrofoils landing on California beaches, docked Japanese submarines, US Marines training in Australia, soldiers guarding Iraqi oil-rigs and battleships patrolling the Pacific. Lê cites purely practical reasons for opting to shoot these pictures in color film; she explains that the subtle tones of the white snow and gray hues of the metallic ships compared with those of the dark ocean would be lost in a black-and-white picture.
By coincidence, on June 2, during the run of the exhibition, British newspapers broke the story that human-rights lawyers identified three US Navy ships, including the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu, as being used as “floating prisons” for high-value detainees. Unwittingly, Lê had taken several pictures aboard the Peleliu in 2005, two of them in the exhibition. Target Practice USS Peleliu (2005) shows five uniformed figures pinning up their targets on the ship’s charcoal-colored deck against the background of a moody, slate-gray seascape. The other picture, a vast blue seascape, Sea Knight Helicopter, USS Peleliu, California(2006), frames an approaching helicopter head-on at the very moment its wheels touch the horizon line; the ship’s landing pad juts into the lower left corner. The seeming improbability of capturing this precise moment and the photograph’s symmetrical composition are a jarring aberration from Lê’s other pictures in the series, a reminder that even these naturalistic photographs have an inherent element of artifice.
In June and July, Lê embarked on two more trips furthering her examination of the military’s noncombatant duties. The first was to Greenland, where the 109th Airlift Wing, members of the New York Air National Guard, train for their missions to Antarctica. Lê met the pilots in Stratton, New York, flew to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, in a ski-equipped LC-130. She continued on to the 109th’s training camp, Raven (population 2), an “iceway” on Greenland’s vast icecap, before visiting Summit Camp, which sits on 3,200 meters of ice and is the highest point on the icecap. In mid-July, Lê and an assistant went to Alaska to spend three weeks on a Coast Guard research ice-breaker. The ship left from the remote St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea and headed up the Bering Straight to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in North America.
Whereas in 19th-century America photographers traveled west to behold what was considered the frontier of civilization, Lê goes to greater extremes. Disavowing any political motivation, she explains that the desire to shoot her pictures comes from a “fascination with the relationship between human activities—in this case, military activities, whether combatant or non-combatant, in support of science—and a force greater than us, nature. I see beauty and mystery in that relationship.”
Unlike the inhuman scale of an Andreas Gursky print, made by stitching multiple images together to create an impossible vantage point, or the in-your-face action of Robert Capa’s famous war photographs, Lê’s photographs create the impression of a removed but still human perspective. As far as images can convey truthful information, Lê’s pictures are a kind of evidence, providing a faithful record of a contradictory world.
Lê says: “One of the unusual things—and I’m fine with it—is that my work can be seen as against the war or subversive, depending on who is looking at it. In the Midwest or Texas it could be seen as glorifying the Army.” However, since the US military uses PR firms, video games and Hollywood-style, cinema-vérité imagery to create its self-image, Lê, with her straightforward approach, undermines that grandiose myth simply by presenting things as they appear to the human eye.
Though Lê has said that her “camera has provided me with multiple shields from the painful memory of war, while allowing me to come as close as possible to try to understand it,” for viewers, her pictures become a kind of condoned surveillance. They provide a crucial, distanced perspective on subjects—such as military training—that otherwise remain undocumented. Approaching something like neutrality, Lê’s photographs unwind the spin, hype, suspicion and partisan hysteria that frame news reports and images alike.