An-My Lê Seeks Complicated Beauty in Landscape Photography
Mar 3, 2020 11:53 am
The term “situational awareness,” which has come into wide use lately, is rooted in military theory. That history makes it apt for describing the art of New York–based photographer An-My Lê, whose midcareer survey opens this month at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Not only does she demonstrate a canny ability to assess and depict the complexities of her subjects, but also, for long stretches of her career, she has photographed the American military and its enthusiasts. For nearly three decades, Lê’s landscapes and portraits have brought into view activities that reveal how power is projected onto—and can be read in—places and people.
Lê’s family fled Vietnam in 1975, moving first to France and then the United States. She discovered photography while pursuing a master’s degree in biology at Stanford. On the recommendation of a professor, she took a job photographing artisans’ studios in France in the mid-1980s. After receiving an MFA from Yale University in 1993, Lê traveled to Vietnam and began making the kind of photographs she is known for today. Those visits to her homeland helped her see how the past manifests itself in landscapes.
Lê is curious, too, about how history shapes the attitudes and actions of people today. Whether photographing men who reenacted Vietnam War skirmishes in the forests of North Carolina and Virginia (“Small Wars,” 1999–2002); American military personnel conducting training exercises in Southern California (“29 Palms,” 2003–04); or service members at work in places as far afield as Indonesia, Ghana, and the North Arabian Gulf (“Events Ashore,” 2005–14), Lê has enlarged our understanding of the motivations and messages structuring her subjects’ lives.
Situational awareness entails not only determining the meaning of a given scene, but also making a prediction about how it will change. One way to understand the progression of Lê’s work is to note her increasing confidence in making sense of environments with uncertain futures. She has moved from smaller, closed social groups into the open and dizzying milieu of contemporary American politics for her newest project, “Silent General” (2015–), which includes images of immigration and border control agents, agricultural workers, environmental disasters, and sites of removed Civil War monuments. This is a felicitous moment to survey her work because the excitement for Lê—and for us, her viewers—is that it’s impossible to know where these subjects will take her. The news she brings back will reward close looking.
BRIAN SHOLIS You’ve spoken about the importance of distance and context to your pictures. Robert Capa, whose “Falling Soldier”  is perhaps the most famous twentieth-century war photograph, famously said: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I suspect you disagree with that statement.
AN-MY LÊ I suspect Capa didn’t mean close as a one-size-fits-all solution. More likely, he was challenging photographers to envision themselves in a more intimate, less rule-based relationship to their subjects. I don’t necessarily disagree with what he said. I just think it needs to be qualified. It’s not how close or far you are but whether you’re in the right place. Defining “right” in each case depends on what you’re interested in. I’m interested in giving context to whatever I’m photographing, whether it’s a landscape or a person. That often means pulling back—and once you do that, you try to preserve the inherent tension in the form of the picture. I often ask myself, “How far can I step back before the original subject of interest starts losing its authority?”
The question of scale is crucial for me. When you find the proper scale for a photograph, you can create relationships that allow you to suggest both power dynamics and balance. That’s fascinating to me, and makes for a picture that is more shaded, more challenging.
SHOLIS You’re discussing scale within the picture, but what about the scale of the pictures themselves? Artists like Thomas Struth print their photographs much larger than you do.
LÊ I certainly want to give my viewer the ability to “step into” an image and have a physical and mental experience, so it is necessary that the print be large enough; for me, that’s fifty to sixty inches wide, which is rather modest. In my newest project, “Silent General,” my interest in linking multiple images in segments of five, six, or seven photographs has dictated a certain limitation in size. I have had to do some juggling to determine my largest practical size.
SHOLIS Sometimes it can be difficult to ascertain, from the picture itself, what caught your eye or prompted you to make the photograph.
LÊ True, and I don’t think that giving context necessarily explains everything. It gives me a chance to connect a subject to histories or even an onrushing future. And, to be clear, by giving context I don’t mean editorializing. I’m referring to the process of arriving at a formal approach that preserves dynamism within a landscape or creates a contest between coexisting realities.
SHOLIS Let’s talk about the beginning of your career. Critics have discussed the autobiographical impetus that took you back to Vietnam after twenty years of exile. Was the personal aspect of making those pictures something that compelled you to begin stepping back and seeking broader contexts? Was it a way to help make sense of the emotional side of experiencing that place?
LÊ Biography can be a red herring in visual art. For writers it’s a genre and a process. They organize life stories, and I imagine that the craft of biography or autobiography is largely about organizing facts in a compelling way. For me, biography is interchangeable with curiosity. My story has been valuable to my work only because it provided me with intense curiosity about certain situations, places, and sensations.
This is perhaps what prompted you to ask about my seeking distance or context. While my return to Vietnam was intensely emotional, connecting to the landscape allowed me to disengage somewhat and gain perspective. I wanted to show Vietnam in a way I had not seen it shown before—not devastated, not victimized, not romanticized. I felt I could do that best through my exploration of the landscape. The sense of scale we have been discussing miraculously made sense as soon as I arrived in Vietnam. I think I was responding to the inextricable link between labor and nature in this agrarian culture, the multiple histories embedded in the Vietnamese landscape. Somehow it had everything. I could see parts of the past or imagine the future without denying the present.
SHOLIS You’ve used the phrase “complicated beauty” when discussing what you seek in such pictures. Can you elaborate on that?
LÊ I have always been terrified by the idea that my photographs would be “just” beautiful. Beauty is often seen as lacking in substance. Over time, I have become confident in my ability to apprehend situations that are defined by a kind of complicated beauty, when you are pulled in by the beauty but also pushed back by something problematic. I find inspiration in landscape theorist John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s writing: “The beauty that we see in the vernacular landscape is the image of our common humanity: hard work, stubborn hope, and mutual forbearance striving to be love. I believe that a landscape which makes these qualities manifest is one that can be called beautiful.”
SHOLIS A moment ago you used the word “embedded.” I’d like to discuss “29 Palms,” your pictures of a Marine Corps base in California, and “Events Ashore,” taken while traveling with the US Navy around the globe. Can you talk about how your position alongside the war reenactors and the military members does or does not encourage viewers to feel empathy for your subjects?
LÊ Well, first of all, let’s talk about the word “embedded.” It’s a recent term, and it often implies that a journalist or artist exchanged autonomy for access. I never did that, and the only instance in which someone looked over my shoulder was when I visited Guantanamo Bay. I stress the distinction because I think people automatically believe that an embedded artist is a sympathetic artist, perhaps even compromised. Instead, for me, it was about trying to immerse myself in the culture of these groups. That’s the best way to help me understand my subjects’ perspectives and see things I want to see.
SHOLIS That empathy and understanding not only help you make your work, but also help the viewer.
LÊ Yes. Though I must admit I don’t think too much about the viewer when making my work; that comes in more when I’m editing. I ask, “Can I make this any clearer?” Or, “Is this too obvious?”
SHOLIS Because you photograph battle reenactors and military service members, one could argue that your focus is on closed worlds, which contributes to a sense of distance from tangled, everyday reality. The progression from the reenactors in “Small Wars” to the Marine Corps base in “29 Palms” to the global naval activity in “Events Ashore” increases the scale of those microcosms, until “Silent General,” which engages with how the past manifests in the present of American landscapes and public life and seems, so far, without bounds. Earlier on, were you looking for “miniatures” you could grapple with? Something you could get a sense of and tell a story about?
LÊ Early on I felt secure knowing that my subject was within a set boundary, such as that one-hundred-acre piece of land in North Carolina or the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California. Originally, I became interested in photography because it’s a permission slip to go to places, ask questions, and see things you could not normally access. Before my career began in earnest, I was photographing transvestites, mostly in the US, at the behest of a college friend who had begun to cross-dress. It was a fascinating community and engaging with it opened up my world. This wouldn’t have happened without a camera. The camera also helps you give those novel experiences a coherence that they might not otherwise have.
SHOLIS Was it a deliberate choice on your part to begin tackling bigger, more sprawling subjects with larger geographic expanses and geopolitical implications?
LÊ It probably was. I am now confident that whether I’m shooting a film set or a monument or a landscape—no matter how wide-ranging the ideas are—I can pull them into a compelling narrative. I didn’t sit down and think, “What’s a circumscribed world that I can get to with a camera?” I am now moving on from my previous way of working, with well-defined projects. It is exhilarating, but also anxiety-inducing, to have so much freedom. The invitation to contribute work to the 2017 Whitney Biennial also helped me solidify the ideas behind “Silent General.” Because I knew I would have a certain amount of space, I worked hard to pull different subjects together.
“Silent General” is inspired by Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, which chronicles the people and places he encountered during the Civil War and its aftermath. He had a career in journalism as well as poetry. I’m compelled by the idea of bringing together facts and lyricism. In Specimen Days Whitman jumps around, from autobiography—his childhood, his Civil War experiences—to musings about nature, geography, geology, and literature. This has inspired me to anchor my work within important moments in American history and current events. I was also drawn to Whitman’s use of fragments, especially prose segments of various lengths; it encouraged me to string together suites of pictures, and I continue working in this way, with a little more serendipity.
SHOLIS The “Silent General” pictures I’ve seen suggest the series is more open-ended than your earlier work. That might be another way of describing what it has grown from: not circumscribed spaces but well-defined ideas.
LÊ When I returned to Vietnam in the 1990s, I was in search of my identity. I was trying to figure out whether I had a home somewhere else in the world. The Vietnam project helped me realize that I’m first an artist and then a Vietnamese-American, in all the shifting characterizations of those labels. I now feel compelled to address American subjects, to explore American history. The question, of course, is how to approach these subjects in ways that are meaningfully distinct from what you see in the press.
SHOLIS I can see two ways you’re doing that. First, by showing the way your photographic subjects tie into deeper histories of race and inequality, sometimes through your picture titles. And second, by showing “framing” material—you reveal how stories get packaged, as in Film Set  or The Monumental Task Committee Press Conference .
LÊ I hope so. There’s so much to talk about right now, and I feel like I’m not out photographing often enough, or I haven’t found the right entry point for certain subjects. To your second point, I want to make photographs about how the press covers American politics—a suite of five or six connected pictures.
SHOLIS What were you searching for when you made your most recent pictures?
LÊ Last August I was in West Texas because of my long-simmering interest in the border wall and immigration. I made a few landscape pictures and portraits of female Border Patrol agents. I always think about how Texas was once part of Mexico and how, despite the imposition of a border, there remains an incredible flow of life in both directions.
SHOLIS The slightly elevated vantage point gives your Rio Grande pictures a sense of the continuity across that divide. I also found it interesting that
you depicted female Border Patrol agents, since the pictorial landscape tradition, the “pioneer” stereotype, and militarized patrol are often coded male.
LÊ I think about those traditions in part because I see the series as a reimagined American road trip. Robert Frank is an influence; he, too, was an immigrant, and he filtered some of the most important aspects of American politics and culture through his sensibility. What I don’t know is whether another artist has done something quite as complete since. Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld did important work in the ’70s and ’80s; maybe Alec Soth is doing that today. Being a woman and an immigrant inspires me to see this project through to its end, to travel and find meaning in other parts of the country.
SHOLIS This photographic tradition, which stretches back to the nineteenth century, is about comprehending the American West. Aside from Hudson River School painting, what’s the corollary for the Eastern seaboard?
LÊ I don’t know. I would love to work on that. Many of the photographers working out West in the 1970s and ’80s, such as Shore and Sternfeld, are from or lived on the East Coast. Maybe they were fulfilling a sense of adventure by getting out into the country.
The American landscape can be so seductive. I’ve lived here a long time, but there are many states I’ve never visited. I made my first visit to Montana last year. It’s breathtaking—but a little disturbing, too. When everything in our nation’s political life is so contested, I feel it is important for me to try to get out and understand something about the democratic experience, as it is expressed in the American landscape.
SHOLIS In an interview with Hilton Als you mentioned that your attachment to landscape was in some sense tied to living in exile. How has your understanding of landscape changed?
LÊ I still feel the same way. The one constant in my life is the landscape, in a broad sense of the word. I love the openness of the land and worry about how we’ve built our lives upon it, how little we maintain it, and how we assault it. It’s one reason for me to want to photograph it.
SHOLIS That worry about disfigurement, or disappearance, reminds me of your comment earlier about how, in Vietnam, you felt the landscape revealed not only the past but also the future. Maybe by photographing the American landscape you’re looking for evidence that it will be OK, that it will abide, and that this, too, shall pass.
LÊ Yes, absolutely. At this time of crisis, I find great comfort in returning to nature, the wilderness, the richness and vast scale of the land. It has shaped the American identity; circling back to the landscape gives me hope for the future.
This article appears under the title “In the Studio: An-My Lê” in the March 2020 issue, pp. 66–75.