an-my le finding photography by chance.
CH NC E
BY volume 3 / fall 2017
is an artist whose photographs of landscapes transformed by war or other forms of military activity blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and are rich with layers of meaning. A refugee from Vietnam and resident of the United States since 1975, much of Lê’s work is inspired by her own experience of war and dislocation. From black and white images of her native Vietnam taken on a return visit in 1994 to pictures of Vietnam War battle re-enactments in rural America, her photographs straddle the documentary and the conceptual, creating a neutral perspective that brings the essential ambiguity of the medium to the fore. In her series 29 Palms (2003–2004), Lê documents American soldiers training in a desert in Southern California before their deployment to Iraq. She focuses her camera alternately on young recruits and the harsh terrain in which they practice their drills, lending an obvious artificiality to the photographs that invites speculation about the romance and myth of
contemporary warfare. Currently, Lê is documenting the U.S. military’s presence at sites around the world where personnel are undertaking training missions, patrolling international waterways, and offering humanitarian aid. An additional series in progress explores the ongoing ties between Vietnamese nationals who have migrated to southern Louisiana over twenty-five years and their homeland in the Mekong Delta. Approaching the subjects of war and landscape from new and powerful perspectives, this accomplished photographer continues to experiment and contribute profoundly to the evolution of her medium. An-My Lê received B.A.S. (1981) and M.S. (1985) degrees from Stanford University and an M.F.A. (1993) from Yale University. Since 1998, she has been affiliated with Bard College, where she is currently a professor in the Department of Photography. Her work has been exhibited at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. As Irvine writes, “Lê’s pictures from 29 Palms in many ways subversively mirror the media’s sanitized view of the Iraq war. They present no blood, no gore, no cruelty, no shock; they simply show us preparations for battle.” Lê has received many awards, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1997 and a 1996 fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Presented in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Lê’s most recent project, The Silent General, looks at contemporary Louisiana’s fascination with its past, specifically its role in the Civil War and proud membership in the Confederacy
Offload, LCACs and Tank
California, 2006, from Events Ashore © An-My Lê, courtesy Murray Guy Gallery
In 2006 she had major exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, and the International Center of Photography Triennial. In 1997 she had a major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her work has also been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, and is a professor in the Department of Photography at Bard College. Photographer An-My Lê was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1960 and arrived in the United States in 1975 as a refugee. Lê attended Stanford University, where she earned her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Biology and earned her Masters of Fine Arts at Yale University. For her black-and-white and color photography, Lê uses a large-format camera, imitating Civil War photographers like Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Alexander Gardner. The MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program wrote, “An-My Lê is an artist whose photographs of landscapes transformed by war or other forms of military activity blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and are rich with layers of meaning.”
Line Shack Supervisor for EA-6B Prowler
Seabees from Naval Battalion on Liberty
Manning the Rail
Ronald Regan,North Arabian Gulf, 2009 © An-My Lê, Courtesy Murray Guy Gallery
Moroni Beach, Comoros, 2009 © An-My Lê, Courtesy Murray Guy Gallery
USS Tortuga, Java Sea, 2010 © An-My Lê, Courtesy Murray Guy Gallery
One of Lê’s photographic collections, Small Wars, documents men in the forests of Virginia reenacting Vietnam War battles on the weekends. Karen Irvine, curator An-My Lê’s exhibit Under the Clouds of War at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, writes, “Instead of addressing her subject by creating reportage images of actual shocking events, she photographs places where war is psychologically anticipated, processed, and relived.” Lê’s motivation Small Wars was to delve into “the Vietnam of the mind” examining the effects of war and variations in individual and communal war memories. Lê is also interested in the glorification of war instead of the recollection of its destructive realities. Another of her photographic collections, 29 Palms, documents the 29 Palms Marine Corps base in the California desert. Before marines deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, they train there for the actualities of war. Lannan Foundation gifted gelatin silver prints from Lê’s Small Wars and 29 Palms series to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. In addition, Lannan made a grant to the Vietnam War reenactments in South Carolina; and 29 Palms (2003–04), in which United States Marines preparing for deployment play-act scenarios in a virtual Middle EastWW in the California desert. Suspended between the formal traditions of documentary and and and staged photography, Lê’s work explores the disjunction between wars as historical events and the ubiquitous representation of war in contemporary entertainment, politics, and collective consciousness.
MacArthur fellow An-My Lê uses photography to question the representation and commemoration of the Vietnam War in the United States. Lê, who fled Vietnam with her family as war refugees, aims to probe the disjunction between historical events and the way they are ultimately recalled—what she considers to be “the Vietnam of the mind”—by calling into question the accuracy of news reports and documentation. Her “Small Wars” series (1999-2002) features scenes of Vietnam War re-enactments, in which she often participates in roles as varied as a military translator and a Vietcong member. Lê also produces more documentary projects, including photographs of war games, ongoing Vietnamese immigration to Southern Louisiana, and United States military presence around the world. For her black-and-white and color photography, Lê uses a large-format camera, imitating Civil War photographers like Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Alexander Gardner. The MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program
wrote, “An-My Lê is an artist whose photographs of landscapes transformed by war or other forms of military activity blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and are rich with layers of meaning.” An-my Lê was born in Vietnam in 1960 and came to the United States as a political refugee at age fifteen. She received a grant to return to her homeland just after U.S./Vietnamese relations were formally restored. Lê; went back several times in 1994—97, creating stunning large-format, black-and-white photographs, expertly printed in a middle-gray scale reminiscent of Robert Adams. These images do not address the war specifically, but rather represent Lê’s attempt to reconcile memories of her childhood home with the contemporary landscape that now confronted her. The war haunts the images in eerie metaphors: dozens of kites double as dive-bombing planes; crop fires and construction sites recall napalm and mass graves. In 1999 Lê; began working with Vietnam War reenactors in North Carolina who restage battles as well as the training and daily life of soldiers—both Viet Cong and American GIs. For four summers, she not only photographed but also participated in battles of the Vietnam War restaged on her adopted American soil. Relating to both documentary and staged photography, the work is aesthetically rigorous and conceptually challenging. Soldiers at rest give themselves up to portraiture, while battle compositions recognizable from classic war photojournalism possess the qualities of a dream. Most recently, Lê has photographed exercises performed by the U.S. military in the American desert in preparation for maneuvers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Photography — An excerpt Plato’s Cave Susan Sontag
umankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image., Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.
“It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge...” To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire. Photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored, tricked out. They age, plagued by the usual ills of paper objects; they disappear; they become valuable, and get bought and sold; they are reproduced. Photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging. They are stuck in albums, framed and set on tables, tacked on walls, projected as slides. Newspapers and magazines feature them; cops alphabetize them; museums exhibit them; publishers compile them. For many decades the book has been the most influential way of arranging (and usually miniaturizing) photographs, thereby guaranteeing them longevity, if not immortality — photographs are fragile objects, easily torn or mislaid — and a wider public. The photograph in a book is, obviously, the image of an image. But since it is, to begin with, a printed, smooth object, a photograph loses much less of its essential quality when reproduced in a book than a painting does. Still, the book is not a wholly satisfactory scheme for putting groups of photographs into general circulation. The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing
holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph. Chris Marker’s film, Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (1966), a brilliantly orchestrated meditation on photographs of all sorts and themes, suggests a subtler and more rigorous way of packaging (and enlarging) still photographs. Both the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed; and there is a gain in visual legibility and emotional impact. But photographs transcribed in a film cease to be collectable objects, as they still are when served up in books. Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects. Virtuosi of the noble image like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, composing mighty, unforgettable photographs decade after decade, still want, first of all, to show something “out there,” just like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-taking, or the shutterbug with a Brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life. While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film -- the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry. Deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity — and ubiquity — of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression.
Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera. This is as evident in the 1840s and 1850s, photography’s glorious first two decades, as in all the succeeding decades, during which technology made possible an ever increasing spread of that mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs. Even for such early masters as David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron who used the camera as a means of getting painterly images, the point of taking photographs was a vast departure from the aims of painters. From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope. The subsequent industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images. That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption — the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed — seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures. The first cameras, made in France and England in the early 1840s, had only inventors and buffs to operate them. Since there were then no professional photographers, there could not be amateurs either, and taking photographs had no clear social use; it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art. It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as art. As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.
Waiting for Work Old time professional migratory laborer camping on the outskirts of Perryton, Texas at opening of wheat harvest. With his wife and growing family, he has been on the road since marriage, thirteen years ago.
Little Money Ex-tenant farmer on relief grant in the Imperial Valley, California.
“By 1918, Lange was living in San Francisco and soon running a successful portrait studio.”
During the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange photographed the unemployed men who wandered the streets. Her photographs of migrant workers were often presented with captions featuring the words of the workers themselves. Lange’s first exhibition, held in 1934, established her reputation as a skilled documentary photographer. In 1940, she received the Guggenheim Fellowship. One of the preeminent and pioneering documentary photographers of the 20th century, Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her father, Heinrich Nutzhorn, was a lawyer, and her mother, Johanna, stayed home to raise Dorothea and brother, Martin. When she was 7, Dorothea contracted polio, which left her right leg and foot noticeably weakened. Later, however, she’d feel almost appreciative of the effects the illness had on her life. “[It] was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” she said. Just before Dorothea reached her teen years, her parents divorced. Dorothea grew to blame the separation on her father and eventually dropped his surname and took her mother’s maiden name, Lange, as her own. Art and literature were big parts of Lange’s upbringing. Her parents were strong advocates for her education, and exposure to creative works filled her childhood. Following high school, she attended the New York Training School for Teachers in 1913. Lange, who’d never shown much interest in academics, decided to pursue photography as a profession after a stint working in a NYC photo studio. She then went on to study the art form at Columbia University, and then, overe next several years, cut her teeth as an apprentice, working for several different photographers, including Arnold Genthe, a leading portrait photographer. In 1917, she also studied with Clarence Hudson White at his prestigious school of photography.
By 1918, Lange was living in San Francisco and soon running a successful portrait studio. With her husband, muralist Maynard Dixon, she had sons and settled into the comfortable middle-class life she’d known as a child.
“Photographed unemployed men who wandered the streets.” Toll of Uncertainty Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children.
Childhood Interrupted Washington, Yakima Valley, near Wapato. One of Chris Adolphâ€™s younger children. Farm Security Administration Rehabilitation clients.
Childhood Interrupted Migratory boy in squatter camp. Has come to Yakima Valley for the third year to pick hops. Mother: “You’d be surprised what that boy can pick.” Washington, Yakima Valley.
Toll of Uncertainty Children of Oklahoma drought refugee in migratory camp in California.
Lange’s first real taste of documentary photography came in the 1920s when she traveled around the Southwest with Dixon, mostly photographing Native Americans. With the onslaught of the Great Depression in the 1930s, she trained her camera on what she started to see in her own San Francisco neighborhoods: labor strikes and breadlines. In the early 1930s, Lange, mired in an unhappy marriage, met Paul Taylor, a university professor and labor economist. Their attraction was immediate, and by 1935, both left their respective spouses to be with each other. Over the next five years, the couple traveled extensively together, documenting the rural hardship they encountered for the Farm Security Administration, established by the U.S. Agriculture Department. Taylor wrote reports, and Lange photographed the people they met. This body of work included Lange’s most well-known portrait, “Migrant Mother,” an iconic image from this period that gently and beautifully captured the hardship and pain of what so many Americans were experiencing. The work now hangs in the Library of Congress. As Taylor would later note, Lange’s access to the inner lives of these struggling Americans was the result of patience and careful consideration of the people she photographed. “Her method of work,” Taylor later said, “was often to just saunter up to the people and look around, and then when she saw something that she wanted to photograph, to quietly take her camera, look at it, and if she saw that they objected, why, she would close it up and not take a photograph, or perhaps she would wait until… they were used to her.” In 1940, Lange became the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Following America’s entrance into World War II, Lange was hired by the Office of War Information (OWI) to the internment of Japanese Americans. In 1945, she was employed again by the OWI, this time to document the San Francisco conference that created the United Nations. While she battled increasing health problems over the last two decades of her life, Lange stayed active. She co-founded Aperture, a small publishing house that produces a periodical and high-end photography books. She took on assignments for Life magazine, traveling through Utah, Ireland and Death Valley. She also accompanied her husband on his work-related assignments in Pakistan, Korea and Vietnam, among other places, documenting what she saw along the way. Lange passed away from esophageal cancer in October 1965. While Lange grew frustrated that her work didn’t always provoke society to correct the injustices she documented, her photography has endured and greatly influenced generations of documentary photographers.
â€œAccess to struggling Americans was the result of carful consideration...â€?
an-my le, susan sontag, dorothea lange
By Chance was designed by Jenna Spanswick for Typographic Systems, 2017. All of the images and text were sourced from publications and the internet and are only being used for design education purposes. Fonts: Swift Regular, Swift Bold, Trade Gothic Bold No. 2, Trade Gothic Medium.