An-My Le is a New York-based photographer from Vietnam, who came to the United States as a teenager. She makes photographs of landscapes defined by conflict. She thinks of herself as a landscape photographer who photographs and films the impact of war. Her pictures frame the tension between the natural landscape and its transformation into battlefields. She wants history to be suggested through landscape. While she sometimes photographs in color, she prefers taking black-and-white photos and sees these works as an extension of drawing.
Le’s family fled Vietnam in 1975. They went first to France and then to the United States. When studying for a master’s degree in biology at Stanford University, Le discovered photography. In the mid-1980s she was photographing artisans’ studios in France. In 1993, she received her M.F.A. from Yale University and then went back to Vietnam to reconnect with her homeland. There she made the kind of photographs for which she is known today. Her return to Vietnam helped her see how the past manifests itself in landscapes and helped her realize that she was first an artist and then a Vietnamese-American. She felt “compelled to address American subjects, to explore American history.”
Le is fascinated by military structure and the preparation for war. She works with reenactors and features scenes of warfare starting with Vietnam War reenactments, in which she herself acted as a military translator and as a member of the Vietcong. Her “Small Wars,” photographed from 1992 to 2002, are three photo series printed in one volume. It shows men reenacting the Vietnam War; it was shot on a one hundred acre piece of land in North Carolina and in the forests of Virginia.
Her 2003-2004 “29 Palms” shows American military personnel conducting training exercises on a Marine Corps base in Southern California. From 2005 to 2015, Le focussed on global naval activity in “Events Ashore” where she traveled around the globe with the U.S. Navy to photograph American service members working in Indonesia, the North Arabian Gulf, and Ghana. With her 2015 – 2017 “Silent General,” Le moved into the open field of contemporary American politics showing in her work that past events in American history manifested themselves in present public life. This work included images of immigration, border control agents, agricultural workers, environmental disasters, and places where Civil War monuments were removed. In this project, Le linked multiple images into segments of five, six, or seven photographs.
Le also produces documentary projects, including photographs of war games, Vietnamese immigration to Southern Louisiana, and U.S. Military presence around the world. Key themes are militarization, political polarization, and environmental degradation. She has shot on the set of a Hollywood film about the Civil War, leaving it unclear to viewers whether or not the explosions were real or fake.
Le, a professor at Bard College, is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and has received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Her work was shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. In 2020, she had her first major mid-career survey “An-My Le: On Contested Terrain” at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
Her photo “Embassy Medevac” was shown in the exhibition “Golden Hour: California Photography From the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was shown at the Museum of Art & History in Lancaster through May 21, 2021.