An-My Lê’s Ghostly Photographs Capture the Complex Consequences of War
An-My Lê, Fragment I: Film Set (Free State of Jones), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana, from the series “Silent General”, 2015. © An-My Lê. Courtesy of the artist.
An-My Lê’s expansive photographs do not document war as a singular act. Instead, they capture war in all its slow-moving, subtle extensions: its preparation, its maintenance, its fallout, and its uneasy passage into cultural memory. From Vietnam War reenactors staging battles in the forests of the American South to U.S. military members training on a simulated Iraqi battlefield in the California desert, the subject of Lê’s work is the atmosphere of war.
Currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain” brings together nearly three decades of striking images that deal with militarism, nostalgia, and the historical record. Organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art, where it was previously on view, it is the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s work.
An-My Lê, Rescue, from the series “Small Wars”, 1999–2002. © An-My Lê. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.
Born in Saigon in 1960, Lê was evacuated to Southern California with her family in 1975, the final year of the Vietnam War. When she returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1994, Lê documented what she saw using a five-by-seven-inch view camera for her series “Viêt Nam” (1994–98). Drawing on traditions of landscape photography, the series displays many of the traits that would come to define Lê’s work: big skies, a pervasive sense of quiet, and a keen observation of the reverberations—no matter how mundane—of historical violence.
Lê continued working with a large-format camera in her subsequent body of work, “Small Wars” (1999–2002), for which she embedded with Vietnam War reenactors in Virginia and North Carolina. The reenactors granted Lê permission to photograph them on the condition that she also participate in the reenactment. By staging photographs of historical events that never happened—even these reenactment scenes are reperformed for the camera, not documented as they unfold—Lê plays with the way in which we associate photography with truth.
An-My Lê, Night Operations III, from the series “29 Palms”, 2003–2004. © An-My Lê. Courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
But despite their distance from direct conflict, these images are far closer to conventional war photography than we might think. Many iconic war photos—from images of the Civil War to contemporary conflict photography—have been staged, edited, or otherwise manipulated.
Lê’s interest in manufactured histories continues in her next series, made during the Iraq War. After being denied permission to embed with the U.S. military in Iraq, Lê began work on the series “29 Palms” (2003–04), which was shot outside of Joshua Tree National Park, California, at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (a.k.a. Twentynine Palms). In these images, Lê documents marines practicing the removal of explosive devices, a caravan of tanks and jeeps rolling across an expansive desert landscape, and drills around a ranch house–turned–Iraqi police compound. Spattered on the walls of the building are clumsily scrawled artificial graffiti that reads “DOWN USA,” “GOOD SADDAM,” and “FREE SADDAM.” In Iraq, the war was happening in real time, but in California, it existed abstractly. Even photos of explosions appear muted and group scenes are weighted with a haunted calm.
An-My Lê, Fragment I: Film Set (Free State of Jones), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana, from the series “Silent General”, 2015. © An-My Lê. Courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
There are few portraits in the series, but what ones there are ground the whole body of work. Two photographs feature border control agents, both apparently young Latina women, posing against the crossing, their postures conveying a similar combination of boredom, determination, and a forced sense of authority. The images exemplify the series title, which is a reference to Walt Whitman’s account of tending to both wounded Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. In these quiet but unflinching photographs, Lê turns a non-judgemental lens on a nation whose historical rifts have become increasingly undeniable.
There’s a famous Civil War photograph, Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s A Harvest of Death (1863), that I kept thinking about in the context of the exhibition. Taken just after the Battle of Gettysburg, the grizzly image depicts a loose pile of soldiers’ bodies splayed out on a field, a horse just visible on the horizon line. The long exposure gives it a hazy, dreamlike quality, one that seems at odds with the immediacy of the death it depicts.
Though war is as much Lê’s focus as it was O’Sullivan’s, what shocked turn-of-the-century viewers was the blatant presence of violence. What is shocking about Lê’s work is its spectral absence.