Meeting the Devil Halfway: A Conversation on Photography, Writing, and History
Artist An-My Lê and writer Lynne Tillman discuss the psychological impact of inventive images and text.
An-My Lê, Lynne Tillman
Oct 27, 2023
On the occasion of her exhibition An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières, the celebrated artist talked with a writer she has long admired, Lynne Tillman, about reenacting history, war, and what’s beyond the frame.
Lynne Tillman: I don’t remember how we met, do you? I remember asking you to speak to my Trans-Genre seminar, this was in 2002, and we visited your small studio in Brooklyn.
An-My Lê: I was first introduced to you and your ideas through a conversation you had with Stephen Shore in 2003 for Aperture. It was clear to me that you had a deep understanding of Stephen’s work, and that you appreciated photography on multiple levels, from a sophisticated perception of the formal language to its subsequent meaning and resonance. I love your broad, informal, and intuitive approach. It doesn’t dispel rigor, but it allows for this complex reading of photography to be more approachable. Your conversation with Stephen fluidly revealed the way photography overlaps and connects in inspiring ways with literature, painting, theater, popular and vernacular culture, psychology, and other fields.
How were you first introduced to photography? Do you remember the first photograph or series of photographs that made a great impression on you? And what do you think has made you so attuned and receptive to these overlapping connections between media?
I was less interested in a geopolitically informed survey than I was in trying to give shape, through landscape photography, to the Vietnam I had nurtured and probably invented while in exile.
Something draws a person to make an image, or write a story, and it’s probably attached to, even fomented by, a memory, and not one that you clearly remember—a trace maybe.
An-My Lê. Hồ Chí Minh City, Sống Design Office Kitchen, from the series Delta. 2011
LT: Dangerous if you wield the power and can dictate your POV. With friends, in families, arguments about who is right, who is the wounded party, who should apologize, terrible. People mostly hate apologizing. I don’t want to feel the need to defend myself, to be defensive, and that it’s OK to be wrong. I wish I understood the need better because “having to be right” does not serve evolution. It’s not helpful. Wars seem to be based on it, my country right or wrong, my ego.
You don’t photograph your family. You travel far away from that kind of work. But in your Hồ Chí Minh City, Sống Design Office Kitchen there’s something about your shooting the familiar. Maybe not familiar in the sense you lived it with your family, but I look at the photographs, and wonder if you feel close to the people in them. Also, you haven’t, to my knowledge, pictured people like this before—in domestic settings, with the people looking at the camera.
AML: You’re right. It’s hard for me to imagine that the specificity of my family would be interesting to anyone. It has been more meaningful to find ways to describe the notion of home. I recognized something important I could not put into words when I walked into that kitchen and decided to photograph it. I think it was the portrait of the young Northern Vietnamese woman with her hair wrapped in a black velvet turban, a hairstyle my grandmother kept on wearing for many years when she was living in France and in the US. It is modern but also traditional; or maybe it was the promise of a pot of jasmine tea accompanied by clusters of sweet longans that made me feel I had arrived home. I felt complete and secure in that space and tried to describe it so. I felt similar flashes of connection with the women I photographed in this series. They were complete strangers, but I was seduced by their vitality and seeming innocence, or maybe it is their resilience.
Do you think that still images can suggest narratives in the true sense that written fiction can?
LT: Suggest, yes, some photographs do that deliberately. There can be elements in them that seem to will a viewer to imagine a story. Your photographs have always fascinated me, for one, because of the stillness of the compositions. They have a mystery to them. I feel that they propose a question: What’s behind the curtain? What’s behind this scene? Photographs are of course still, but yours feel caught in time. Then again, contemporary photographers have for a long time promoted the fiction of a photograph: it’s a surface, what you see isn’t a story, and a photograph can’t tell you anything. Still, viewers project into images, furnish a story, one that may have nothing to do with the picture. In this way, all photographs are highly psychological objects.
Do you want to have your photographs tell stories? What do you want for your photographs? What should we see in them?
AML: I’m not sure I want my photographs to tell stories, per se. Just like with fiction stories, where you want your reader to stay interested and keep on reading until the end, I want my photographs to hold the viewer’s attention and engage them. But like with great literature, it is not the drive of spellbinding story itself that matters most but it is the lingering intellectual impact that stays with you when you get to the end. What was that about? How does this make me feel? How does this add to my understanding of human existence? Don’t you love how photographs can be evidentiary but at the same time open ended? We rely on this fragile construct between the objective and subjective.
LT: In writing fiction, I try to understand that relationship, between subjectivity and so-called reality, to question points of view, attitudes, how events of all kinds affect your sense of the world, subtly I hope. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.” I think that’s mostly true. It certainly represents modernist thinking, form and content, but I’m not sure. Sometimes what you say can’t be assuaged by how you say it.
An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières is on view at MoMA November 5, 2023–March 16, 2024.
For the Love of Two Rivers: An-My Lê’s Fluid Gaze
Read an excerpt from the Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières exhibition catalogue.
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