By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Photographs are an essential part of history. In times of war and industrialization they depicted the before, the during and the after. From photos, historians gleaned the struggles and the triumphs of transformation and change. In short, photographs are windows to the past, that make the viewer contemplate the present and future.
Photographer An-My Lê illustrates this idea by examining how conflict and war – two issues that have existed since the dawn of time – shape people’s experiences. Using a 5-by-7-inch view or Deardorff camera, which is based on 19th century technology, Lê takes layered photos that immerse the viewer into the landscape.
“An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain” is currently on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Dr., from Friday, Dec. 3 to Sunday, March 27. The exhibition features several collections by Lê including “Small Wars,” “Events Ashore” and more.
The exhibition is on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Art and was curated by Dan Leers. Lisa Sutcliffe, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Herzfeld curator of photography and media arts, helped coordinate the exhibition here in Milwaukee.
“What I think you’ll see when we walk through the exhibition is that these are photographs that prompt questions but don’t answer questions,” Sutcliffe said during the press tour earlier this week.
Many of Lê’s photos focus on conflict, Sutcliffe explained. Because of the camera she uses, Lê has to work slowly, which implies that she’s thinking about the lead up to the conflict and the consequences. It also allows her to choose which plane to focus on.
Lê, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1960, is no stranger to conflict. In 1975, she was evacuated from Vietnam and came to the United States as a refugee. While studying at Yale University, Lê was encouraged to study her own history and returned to Vietnam to study the landscape.
“Her work is really shaped by experiences, and I think she would say her experiences have shaped her curiosities and the things she’s interested in examining,” Sutcliffe said.
Most of Lê’s earlier work focused on landscape. In her series “Small Wars,” she depicts reenactments of the Vietnam War that took place in the forests of North Carolina and Virginia from 1999 to 2002. To photograph the reenactments, Lê had to participate; she chose to play a Viet Cong solider who was captured, in order to capture both sides of the war.
In one photo, Lê is seen aiming a gun. In this instance, it is both a performance and a documentation, Sutcliffe noted, adding that the series depicts the theatre of war as a performance and as a record of conflict.
In her series “29 Palms” Lê captured photos of Marines training for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan in the desert of California. Her photos focus on the landscape, but the final result reads like a stage as the mountains loom over the tanks.
Again, Lê brings to question the theatrics of war and the roles people play, while simultaneously capturing the history of the landscape and the documentation of military training.
In the next series, “Events Ashore,” Lê’s work transitions from black and white to color. More notably, there’s an increased focus on people. Color photos allowed Lê to capture the distinction between the sea and the sky and the subtle gradations of the sea, Sutcliffe said.
Lê worked on this series for eight years. The photos follow various naval interactions and show the large role the Navy plays, which remains relatively unknown to many.
The exhibition ends with Lê’s ongoing series, “Silent General,” which she began in 2015. Lê shows the stories that aren’t being told with a focus on laborers and the individuals often deemed invisible.
In “Silent General” Lê continue to play with landscape and scale. As in her other photos, the viewer is once again left feeling like they are both the one behind the lens and part of the landscape.
Lê’s work emphasizes that context is key and that everyone has a role to play in conflict and the impact it has on the world.
Admission to “An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain” is included with general admission. For tickets visit the Milwaukee Art Museum’s website at mam.org. The museum is open Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.