If a picture is worth a thousand words, An-My Lê’s photographs speak volumes about the complexities of American history and conflict. An-My Lê: On contested terrainNow on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth through Aug. 8, shows her nuanced perspective on military life and the legacy of war.
Born in Saigon in 1960, Lê remembers the sights and sounds of the Vietnam War before the U.S. military evacuated her and her family in 1975.
With more than 70 photographs, this nationally changing exhibition is a retrospective of the career of this Vietnamese-American photographer. Divided into five series, Lê examines the history of conflict from the 1990s to today.
Lê photographs vast landscapes with a large format camera in the tradition of 19th century photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan and Matthew Brady.
“You will see that she really has an interest in people, but not in people up close, people who operate in the country around her,” said Kristen Gaylord, assistant curator of photographs for the museum.
The first series, Vietnam, shows black and white photographs that Lê took during her first trip back to Vietnam 20 years after her family was evacuated. Before this trip, Lê only knew her homeland through the lens of war films and cultural stereotypes.
“Here she works through all of these different images to find a Vietnam that feels familiar,” said Gaylord.
Lê often asked the subjects to pose or re-enact a certain activity. The photographs show the development of Vietnam from a theater of war to a modern nation marked by its complicated history. A photo of a soccer game seems more spontaneous, but Lê uses the architecture to frame the movement of the game.
“It’s very classic, but it’s a street scene of a boys soccer game,” said Gaylord.
Lê never felt more American than when photographing Vietnam. While doing further research on the war and the country, she discovered re-enactments of the Vietnam War in North Carolina and Virginia. These reenactments inspired Small wars, the second series of the exhibition.
The reenactors allowed Lê to take photos of their activities if she wanted to participate. She often played a North Vietnamese soldier or a Viet Cong rebel.
“The men were really excited about her because she is Vietnamese. It’s another authentic thing to add to your reenactment, ”said Gaylord.
Although the situations and equipment are accurate, the surroundings reveal the true location of the reenactment.
“If you know your equipment you might think it’s a historical picture, but then the country is not quite right,” said Gaylord.
While working with reenactors, Lê did not meet combat veterans. Some participants were non-combat veterans while some were related to those who had served. Like Lê, they wanted to understand the mythology and legacy of the Vietnam War.
“They all came to terms with the legacy of the Vietnam War in their own way,” said Gaylord.
When L failed to qualify in the military on the front lines of the Iraq War, she photographed military exercises at 29 Palms, a naval base in California. The third series, 29 palm trees, represents a shift in L’s creative focus.
“Whereby this series [Small Wars] is about the legacy of war, this series [29 Palms] it’s about preparing for war, ”said Gaylord.
When photographing the training exercises in the California desert, Lê highlights the enveloping landscape.
“We think the US military is so overwhelming, but it can really shrink compared to the vastness of the country,” Gaylord said.
She photographed the tense moments of training as well as the arduous work.
“It’s not the action-packed glamorous side of the military. It is between. It’s boredom. It’s the difficulty in doing exercises, ”said Gaylord.
Lê captures men waiting in the blazing sun to see what’s next, reminding Gaylord of an impressionist painting.
“That speckled light falling through the tent and playing calmly over the bodies of these men makes me think of Renoir paintings at the Kimbell,” said Gaylord.
For the fourth series Events on land, Lê fades in color to photograph the crews of US ships around the world. Photographed for over nine years, it documents diplomatic, humanitarian and political activities and shows the global reach of the American military.
“She really never photographs real fights. It is the reenactment of it, the preparation for it. That’s all the military does that doesn’t fight, ”Gaylord said.
From an impressive portrait of the hospital ship, grace, to a photo of men washing the side of a ship, Lê captures exquisite images of the impressive and everyday.
Lê continues to work on Quiet general, the fifth series of the exhibition.
“This ongoing series turns outward and becomes much more open and poetic as it begins to look beyond and at other depictions of division in this country, protests on other issues, the 2016 elections, and now COVID-related images. “Said Gaylord.
The series began in 2015 with Lê shooting on the set of Jones Free State, a Civil War drama starring Matthew McConaughey. Lê photographs focused on the legacy of the civil war and distant civil war monuments, current protest movements, border areas and field workers.
Lê took these photographs in Louisiana, California, Texas, and New York, all contested terrain. Each photo shows how the current socio-political conflicts of this nation are rooted in its history. Lês photographs are an invitation to a contemporary discussion.
“It’s very open,” said Gaylord.
Learn more: https://www.cartermuseum.org/