In her recent exhibition, Vietnamese-American photographer An-My Lê returned to the subject matter, if not the ambiguities, of her earlier work. Her previous documentary photographs addressed American militarism in its various forms. For her “Small Wars” series (1999-2002), she traveled to rural Virginia to photograph a group of history enthusiasts reenacting episodes from the Vietnam War against the unlikely backdrop of southern pine forests. For “29 Palms” (2003-04), she took pictures of training operations for the Iraq War in the deserts of Southern California. The images follow the conventions of war photography, but the scenes they depict often seem strangely unreal. There are explosions, firefights and hand-to-hand combat, but these skirmishes leave no corpses behind. The photographs cast a skeptical eye on the grand fictions of American supremacy rather than focusing on its brutal realities or humdrum routines.
The recent show, featuring nearly 20 photographs, was both broader in scope and less ambivalent in tone. Unlike “Small Wars” and “29 Palms,” these pictures are all in color, and they document Lê’s excursions on American naval vessels in 2009 and ’10 to far-flung places such as Haiti, Ghana and Vietnam. In these large-format photographs (mostly 40 by 56½ inches), she offers scenes of training and relief missions. In one photograph, a humanitarian supply convoy crosses the beach in post-earthquake Haiti, and in another, a hospital ship floats off the coast of Vietnam. Other pictures present spectacular landscapes as they appear from the decks of naval vessels. For one five-part piece (each part 26½ by 38 inches), she photographed the Egyptian coastline from the USS Eisenhower as it passed through the Suez Canal. The resulting photo essay is stunning and almost cinematic. The carrier fills the bottom of each frame while the landscape beyond it changes. Like many of the works in this exhibition, this group of prints shows us the world as it appears from the perspective of a battleship’s crew.
In this context, Lê’s inclusion of portraiture—a new genre in her work—is all the more revealing. Three photographs (26½ by 38 inches each) of women soldiers project the tension between military regimentation and individual expression. A lookout’s crooked glasses, a mechanic’s sculpted eyebrows, an airplane inspector’s faraway stare: these subtle details suggest a personal realm beyond the conventions of military life.
However admirable, the sensitivity of the recent pictures comes at a price. The exhibition powerfully presented the humanity of America’s soldiers, but it seldom registered the complex misgivings suggested by Lê’s earlier work.
Photo: An-My Lê: Supply Distribution Convoy, Haiti, 2010, pigment print, 40 by 56½ inches; at Murray Guy.