Employing traditional compositions of 19th century landscape photography to depict contemporary life, Saigon-born An-My Lê (b. 1960) captures current concerns around war and immigration whilst alluding to the past.The Silent General, for example, references the title from a fragment of Walt Whitman’s Specimen, reflecting upon the poetic autobiographical narrative, blending personal history and national events from the Civil War era (1861-1865).
Taken over the past two years in or around New Orleans, Louisiana, and on show at Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, the colour images call into question different aspects of contemporary life in the South, harking back to archetypal motifs such as sugar cane fields, churchgoers and anonymous labourers, whilst maintaining a sense of division through an alienating stylistic method. Melding both past and present, analogue and digital, the series utilises a distance-led approach, contrasting the idea of the invasive, contemporary lens, and creating layers of non-linear historic depth.
Older works in the show include the monochrome 29 Palms (2003-2004), which captures US Marine Corps training before being sent out to Iraq or Afghanistan. Emphasising the natural surroundings in which populations grew to become soldiers, prepared for conflict, Lê constructs situations of collective fiction; depicting a war devoid of violence, and imitating a reality where conflict is taken out of a picture. Touching on the responsibilities of documentary photography whilst rewriting history through experimentation and fabrication, the Vietnamese American photographer steps into a new realm of collage, grounding imagination within the perceived actions of larger populations.
Small Wars is another work that does just this, exploiting a sense of ambiguity during summers spent infiltrating Vietnam War re-enactments. Taking part in training sessions in disguise, Lê questions the ways in which we both document and honour war, remaining attentive to natural environments and fascinated by the significance of different topographies as a tool in strategising war. As Lê notes: “My attachment to the idea of landscape is a direct extension of a life in exile.”
AN-MY LÊ runs until 27 May at Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris. Find out more: www.mariangoodman.com
1. An-My Lê, Debriefing, from 29 Palms, 2003-2004 Gelatin silver print Image. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery.