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Interview

Rapid Fire
An interview with An-My Lê
Rajesh Punj

Luxembourgian American photographer Edward Steichen said of a portrait that it “is not made in the camera but on either side of it” as a way of explaining how images are based on relationships, whether they be fixed or fleeting. And such variables of contact are for Vietnamese American photographer and academic An-My Lê the rubric of her work. As she explains photography less as a forensic exercise in which light and dark rule reality, but more an endeavour that has her front and centre; to the point that everything – the figures, the landscape, the collateral detail that constitutes her pictures, are reflective of the photographer herself. Siting scale as fundamental to an understanding of her place in relation to the photographs she produces. “I don’t deny the fact that there is something to learn about “me” from the work. If my attractions and desires and my own confusion are virtues worth taking seriously, then we could speak about authorship and how for me it revolves around the notion of scale again.”The significance of oneself was what photojournalist Ernst Haas explained as the only ‘limitation of photography’, saying of the intention to capture reality, as “what we see is what we are”. Which affirms to An- My’s sense of self in the image. 

And with regard to the content of her work, of men acting out war, she explains everything as rooted in the individual. “Being a landscape photographer means creating a relationship between various categories – the individual within a larger construct such as the military, history, and culture. Of individual lives caught up in the sweep of history, in stories larger than themselves, in details that can stand for a whole or a whole that can incorporate an aggregate of details.” Creating such circumstances for the photograph to act as an insight into being and belonged to history, whether of the moment or reenacted. And for An-My there is as much identity and individual spirit in a landscape, when looking over her SmallWars (1999-2002) and Palms (2003-2004) series, as there is in a person of a particular place. Seeing space as a volume that deserves to be rewarded with reason. “I like that you’re asking me about romanticism, which has a long tradition in depicting landscape in art history, and I think you use the term in the way I use it: as a lens through which to look at facts in space or to look at spaces to be infused with meaning.”

Being a landscape photographer means creating a relationship between various categories – the individual within a larger construct such as the military, history, and culture. Of individual lives caught up in the sweep of history, in stories larger than themselves, in details that can stand for a whole or a whole that can incorporate an aggregate of details.

Interview

Rajesh Punj: For an audience less familiar with your work, how would you explain the facts and falsehoods of your photographs? 

An-My Lê: I respond to what I know to be the limitations of my medium by pushing them to say as much as possible. I don’t work like a journalist in the sense that I don’t feel bound by the ethical constraints of journalism, but it doesn’t mean I am not trying to be a novelist. I am interested in interrogating the world and challenging my viewers by whatever means necessary.

RP: I have an initial interest in your use of colour and black and white, and I want to ask of what distinction the use of one has over the other? And might that be to do with the content of the work?
AML: I began as a black and white photographer and was interested in the way things are drawn. Again it is about limitations. There is a reduction of information in black and white that is restrictive but at the same time it can unleash the imagination. Vietnam, Small Wars and 29 Palms were done in BW and it seemed fitting then because these projects dealt directly with something that happened in the past. I switched to colour for Events Ashore because I was experiencing in real time the unfolding of the workings of the Navy. Silent General is in colour but there is no real distinction. We have a temporal jumble of monuments memorializing the past, the shooting of a Hollywood Civil War period film and the unfolding everyday life in New Orleans during the 2016 Presidential Election. I can’t imagine making the colour photographs I am making now without having spent years photographing in BW. All the great colour photographers I know came to be who they are by first understanding how to describe the world in black and white.

RP: In a more formal sense are you taking pictures in order to capture a specific moment, or are you creating something much more significant than that?
AML: That is a great question and a brilliant definition of how form functions in photography. Form is about contending with givens (capturing the moment) while applying your own ideas to the actual visible world, to the event and adding in some visual way to what is already there in order to reveal something much more significant.

RP: Your images of figures almost read as biographies of the lives of the individual, – are you intending with a photograph to investigate more than just appearances, or as with the choice of subject matter, ‘Small Wars’ and ’29 Palms’ have you become a cinematic photographer, by which the figure becomes a character in an extended scene?
AML: While I accept terms like cinematic and character, your question is better answered by my attitude towards scale. Being a landscape photographer means creating a relationship between various categories – the individual within a larger construct such as the military, history, and culture. I am not concerned with imitating the cinematic tradition. I am more interested in individual lives caught up in the sweep of history, in stories larger than themselves, in details that can stand for a whole or a whole that can incorporate an aggregate of details. For me, what is exciting is that the equations and opportunities for depicting scale change from picture to picture. It is not a formula.

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