Photographs by An-My Le. Essay by Richard B. Woodward. Interview by Hilton Als.
Aperture, New York, 2005. 128 pp., 75 duotone illustrations, 11¾x8¾".
“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly
described.” This Garry Winogrand “understanding”
about still photographs comes to mind while regarding
An-My Lê’s seductive, evasive images. Her Yale-trained
eye and a large-format black-and-white negative produce
results that are more akin to Jeff Wall or Gregory
Crewdson than to Walker Evans or Winogrand; the photographs
in Small Wars signal the contemporary transformation
of subjectivity and objectivity that instills
great complexity into photographic reading and disturbs
our sophisticated sense of comfort with visual information.
What seems conventional in her work cannot be
taken at face value, and even what we see clearly leaves
itself open for questions. Accustomed as we are to
seeing battlefield reconstructions and reenactors bringing
every war from the Revolutionary to Korea back to
life on our home soil, it is unsettling to see Vietnam, both
the place and the war (though not necessarily at the
same time), come to life in Lê’s images. Just as her
views of contemporary war games—captioned with a
straight face as “Embassy Reinforcement” or “Resupply
Operations”— resemble nineteenth-century expeditionary
views by O’Sullivan and others, her images of
Vietnam’s landscape seem oddly anachronistic. Though
made in 1995, in the context of this book they could be
either much older, or not really in Southeast Asia. Abrupt
shifts of scale bring
us close in to uniforms
then leave us at an
themselves like spiders
across an enormous,
arid terrarium. We spot a camouflaged figure from
behind tall grass, as though we're avoiding detection,
and suddenly we’ re all too immersed in the reality of
these games. Even in what seem like innocent
landscapes we start looking for figures in the grass. The
text in Small Wars brings important clarity to this first
monograph by an intriguing, Saigon-born photographer
in her mid-40s. GEORGE SLADE
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