“You can ascribe character to a landscape. It is like a stage.”
In 1975, the Vietnamese-born artist An-My Lê fled Saigon with her family, eventually settling in the United States as a political refugee. When Lê encountered representations of the Vietnam War in magazines, television, and movies in the US, she recalls being “drawn to the corners of the images…to see what the civilians were doing behind the soldiers, what type of fruit was being sold on the corner, what type of bike the man watching the monk was riding.” Her interest in these seemingly marginal details may explain, in part, her adoption of a 19th-century camera and large-format negatives, with which “every detail feels like it is a subject, every detail becomes significant.”
After earning degrees in biology and French studies at Stanford, Lê pursued an MFA in photography at Yale University. In 1994, the year following her graduation, the US lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam and she returned for the first time since evacuating, resulting in her first major photographic series. In her mother’s birthplace, Hanoi, she photographed two small children with their mother or grandmother in the courtyard of a stone building. As one lingers on the image, minute details begin to assert themselves: the textured corner of a patched roof, a musical staff and lyrics etched into the wall, the barefoot boy holding his shoes, a pair of hands tying rope to a metal bucket just beyond the threshold.
Another photograph taken in the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam shows a bamboo bridge extending across shallow marsh. A child and a woman stand on the opposite side of the water from the photographer, close to a dwelling on the right edge of the composition. Vegetation blurs, the result of the long exposure time, lending the photograph a dreamlike quality. In different ways, both images layer the real Vietnam of the present with an imagined one conjured from Lê’s memories, those of her family, and the representations of the war she consumed as a teenager.
Military conflict, an ongoing preoccupation for Lê in light of her own experience of war and displacement, plays a more overt role in projects such as 29 Palms. In 2003, she photographed troops preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq in Twentynine Palms, California, a Marines training site. In a resulting work, Infantry Platoon (Machine Gunners) (2003–04), soldiers in combat fatigues practice firing at long range across the Californian desert, which is used to simulate Middle Eastern terrain. The series reveals the performative, even spectacular, dimensions of training exercises—rehearsals for real battles to come. The landscape takes on an allegorical role, serving as a site to meditate on the complexities of US imperialism and its effect on landscapes at home and abroad. “You can ascribe character to a landscape,” Lê has said. “It is like a stage.”
The legacies of war on US soil, and ongoing political divisions over American identity, inform Silent General, initiated in 2016. The series takes its inspiration from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, an impressionistic account of the Reconstruction-era United States, and its title from Whitman’s description of general-turned-president Ulysses S. Grant. One so-called “fragment”—as Lê refers to the loosely defined groupings of images within the series—brings together photographs from Louisiana including the now-removed monument to General P. G. T. Beauregard in New Orleans. The accumulation of details in the landscape, and the relationship between seemingly disparate kinds of landscapes, become the ground on which Lê explores the layered construction of history. “I want it to hold your attention in every little corner,” she once said. “Then when you stand back, I want it to transcend to something greater.”
Caitlin Ryan, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2023