This exhibition is comprised of two photographic series by An-My Lê (American, born Vietnam, 1960) in which she explores the conflicts that bracket the last half-century of American history: the war in Vietnam and the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lê approaches these events obliquely. Instead of addressing the topic of war by creating reportage images of actual shocking events, she photographs places where war is psychologically anticipated, processed, and relived. Her series Small Wars (1999–2002) depicts men who reenact battles from the war in Vietnam in the forests of Virginia on weekends. Her current and ongoing series, 29 Palms (2003–present), documents the military base of the same name in the California desert where soldiers train before being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. These dramatizations of war—one a reenactment, one a rehearsal—allow Lê to create a unique kind of war imagery—one that is unexpected, removed, and revelatory.
Photography has been used to chronicle major wars since its invention in 1839. The era of war photography as we know it, however, with graphic images from the center of the conflict delivered into our homes on a daily basis, didn’t begin until the development of fast films and handheld 35mm cameras at the turn of the twentieth century. Prior to that, due to the long exposure times photography required, cameras were unable to capture the movement and chaos of battle. Images of war were typically static pictures of its aftermath or posed portraits of soldiers. An-My Lê’s use of a large format camera harkens back to this era, specifically to the Crimean War photographs of Roger Fenton and the American Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady and his colleagues, practitioners who placed great emphasis on the clarity and composition of their images, and who, like Lê, worked with a mix of documentary and artistic intentions.
Lê’s pictures are most interesting in their ambiguity and discourage foregone conclusions. Although they have the hallmarks of a documentary project—they are presented in a series, depend on a verbal or written narrative, and require the person taking them to appear to be immersed and “really there”—they are also obtuse. They do not show us what war does, but they do contribute to our understanding of war in a new and interesting way. By bringing a new resonance to the phrase “the theater of war,” Lê’s pictures ask us to reconsider the fictions that cloud the ways in which war is remembered, reported upon, and experienced.
This exhibition has been organized by the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Funding for this exhibition has been provided by the Lannan Foundation.