An-My Lê

American photographer

An-My Lê (born 1960) is a Vietnamese-American photographer and professor at Bard College.

QuotesEdit

Interview with the Art Newspaper (13 August 2020)Edit

An-My Lê: ‘Landscape is not a narrow category—it is a source of surprise’ (13 August 2020)

  • We never thought we could or would return to Vietnam. It was almost 20 years before the possibility arose. Memories are ever shifting when you live in exile.
  • Landscape, at its best, is not a narrow category. It is a source of surprise. It allows for the sudden assertion of a place, like an unexpected time signature within a melody.
  • One thing great journalists and artists have in common is a desire to be surprised, to find yourself with way more than you bargained for when you began an inquiry with little more than a sense of intuition.
  • I am acutely aware of the complex role Vietnam plays, as both history and myth, in the country I have adopted as my own and in the culture I have raised my children. I can’t say I embrace every American characterisation of Vietnam. But I see the Hollywood clichés, the lasting psychic scars and even the cheap fetishes as expressions of something very real and very human. Vietnam remains an unavoidable and unresolved subject. As history, place and subject, it is still unfolding.

Interview with ARTNews (3 March 2020)Edit

An-My Lê Seeks Complicated Beauty in Landscape Photography (3 March 2020)

  • I certainly want to give my viewer the ability to “step into” an image and have a physical and mental experience, so it is necessary that the print be large enough; for me, that’s fifty to sixty inches wide, which is rather modest.
  • Biography can be a red herring in visual art. For writers it’s a genre and a process. They organize life stories, and I imagine that the craft of biography or autobiography is largely about organizing facts in a compelling way. For me, biography is interchangeable with curiosity. My story has been valuable to my work only because it provided me with intense curiosity about certain situations, places, and sensations.
  • While my return to Vietnam was intensely emotional, connecting to the landscape allowed me to disengage somewhat and gain perspective. I wanted to show Vietnam in a way I had not seen it shown before—not devastated, not victimized, not romanticized. I felt I could do that best through my exploration of the landscape.
  • I have always been terrified by the idea that my photographs would be “just” beautiful. Beauty is often seen as lacking in substance. Over time, I have become confident in my ability to apprehend situations that are defined by a kind of complicated beauty, when you are pulled in by the beauty but also pushed back by something problematic.
  • The one constant in my life is the landscape, in a broad sense of the word. I love the openness of the land and worry about how we’ve built our lives upon it, how little we maintain it, and how we assault it. It’s one reason for me to want to photograph it.
  • At this time of crisis, I find great comfort in returning to nature, the wilderness, the richness and vast scale of the land. It has shaped the American identity; circling back to the landscape gives me hope for the future.

Interview with Daylight Books (1 October 2017)Edit

An-My Lê: The Landscape of Conflict (October 1, 2017)

  • I think anyone can make one, two great photographs. It is the endeavor, the sustained effort and exploration of an idea or a subject that is more significant.
  • Most art photographers understand and often benefit from or engage with the fact that their medium plays a role in journalism, as evidence, propaganda…this is something we know. But the ambitions of the grey areas of subjectivity and experimentations one finds in photography is what I relate too. Color brings my work dangerously close to photojournalism. I rely on the tension between the objective and subjective within a picture to complicate a photograph. I also depend on a carefully crafted sequence of images in a sort of “essay” form to explore a complicated subject.
  • Art is always made against the backdrop of politics. Artists think historically. They think about the history of art, the history of their medium, they think about their personal history. Politicians should do more of that. At the current moment it seems that the aesthetics and artistry within how each political party or ideology is presented is vigorously critiqued.
  • I feel that the early part of my life was dictated by American foreign policy. This idea of human lives being caught in a much larger web of uncontrollable events was impressed upon me so the notion of scale have always been important to me. My interest in human endeavor or culture within the larger context, within the landscape has been a continuing foundation for my work.
  • I always take it one step at a time. I see each new project as a response to a certain dissatisfaction, to unanswered questions from the previous work. As we experience life, we change overtime and develop different concerns. Teaching, becoming a parent, losing a parent are some of the important markers that have influenced my work.

Interview with the Brooklyn Rail (February 2015)Edit

An-My Lê Seeks with Sara Christoph (February 2015)

  • The topic of the military raises questions in ways that other topics would not. There are photographers who have dealt with extreme poverty, or who have photographed horrific labor conditions, and they are not held accountable in the same way. They aren’t asked: what do you think of poverty? But the question of the military is so complicated that it riles up people’s opinions.
  • I think artists deal with something messy, and they keep it messy. Which is frustrating for people, especially when it comes to topics in which everyone has an opinion. I think we do move the conversation forward, but I also like to keep it messy. It is not a math problem. In a way, we should approach these topics in the way one would write an essay.
  • I do use the phrase “to take a picture,” but I think my work involves labor. It is a certain reworking of what you see and of the facts, in order to create this new fiction. It is certainly a making, a transformation.
  • For me, the landscape has always been the constant in my work. I work with scale as a way to give context to human endeavors, military endeavors, and the history of power. In the end, Vietnam has endured many battles and gone through so many changes. The Chinese invasion, the Japanese occupation, the colonialism of the French, the Indochina War, the Americans—the constancy was always the landscape. And people change, cultures change over time, but there is something about the land. Even as our world modernizes, there is a certain consistency, a certain authenticity.
  • I think at sea, it is always about some greater force. The forces of the weather, the sky, the wind, all these uncontrollable things, you really feel the greater force of nature. But at the same time, you are on this massive aircraft carrier that costs about one million dollars a day to run! You really see that tension between the natural world and the force of technology. I think for me, the sublime is always a tension of something that you can’t quite control. It creates these emotions in you that are rare, and that make you aware.
  • Rather than whether or not there is a future for combat photography, I think one of the big differences now is the role of the civilian—the amateur photographer. Conflicts will always be newsworthy, someone will always need to be there to document. Now the technology is such that anyone can be there and take a quick picture, post it, and send it out to the world. In these pictures you don’t look at the artistry anymore—if there is such a thing—it is just information.
  • War photographers were always placed on a pedestal. They put their lives at risk. Of course it is still very dangerous, but it also seems that now, there could just as easily be a civilian taking the picture. Maybe it is less a question of whether war photography will continue, and more a question of whether this idea of the heroic, self-sacrificing combat photographer will live on.

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