The photographer An-My Lê’s work is haunted by war—or rather by the subliminal fog of war, blurring the warzones that crowd our collective memory. For most of us, the experience of war is mediated through filmed accounts, whether documentary or fictional, complicating our relationships to the casualties, carnage, and ruptures they portray. Just as it’s likely impossible for a dark, inevitably violent “anti-war” film to not be in some way an inadvertent glorification of war, so too do photographs depicting war contain contradictory crosscurrents, registering both reverence and acerbic ambiguity. To read Lê’s work as an act of “resistance” would be simplistic, since the emotional temperature is, for the most part, prim and reserved. This delicate nuance is on full display in the MOMA’s expansive retrospective “An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers.”
Born in Saigon in 1960, Lê and her family fled Vietnam for America in 1975, the final year of the Vietnam War. The preconditions and psychic aftermath of war have thus occupied her for decades. From her earliest series on, her work has confounded the lines between fabrication and documentation, personal experience and political history.
Small Wars (1999–2002) shows Lê setting a mulitvalent historical stage. Embedded with Vietnam War reenactors in rural Virginia and North Carolina, she created a series of black-and-white photographs documenting the international conflict being replayed after the fact in landscapes actually marked by the Civil War. The photographer was allowed access on the condition that she join in the simulacrum herself, masquerading as a Viet Cong guerrilla, wearing black pajamas and sandals. In one picture, she’s a belly-crawling sniper laying low in sand dunes, aiming a rifle at five approaching GIs, with a pleasant seaside landscape filling the background. Other scenes are equally crammed with incidental beauty and irony. The landscape’s foliage and the richness of natural light coexist with ordnance smoke, a “crashed” prop plane, and the clumsy action of the pretend soldiers, whose movement is rendered ghostly by the slow shutter speed of Lê’s camera.
Whereas Small Wars is elaborate reenactment, 29 Palms (2003–04) is grand-scale dress rehearsal, documenting U.S. Marines preparing for deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq—wargame participants in a simulated Middle East, constructed in the California desert like a movie set. The terrain only vaguely resembles the soldiers’ warzone destinations, yet hostile graffiti embellishes the training ground’s buildings where U.S. soldiers mingle with other marines acting the part of Middle Eastern people. In a sequence of images titled Night Operations, the desert sky is streaked with flares and incoming explosives. The streaks resemble scratches on the surface of the prints.
Lê’s compositions often hark back to conventions of landscape painting, favoring open vistas and expansive views, yet their resolution, detail, and depth are distinctly photographic. She cites J. M. W. Turner as an influence. Turner’s drama-filled skies emerge in Lê’s most up-to-the-moment work, the black-and-white panorama Fourteen Views (2023). Therein, the cyclorama tradition of nineteenth-century Europe is both emulated and broken across a discontinuous set of fourteen digitally enhanced vertical panels mixing geographic locations as varied as the Mekong River in Vietnam, the banks of Bayou St. John in New Orleans, and the gardens of the former Château de Saint-Cloud outside Paris. The spatial-temporal differences are blurred and blended through clouds digitally transposed and connected across neighboring skies. In one notable image, the majesty of the Ban Gioc Waterfalls (on the border between China and Vietnam) is being spied over by a lone hovering drone—another digital insertion, deliberately disturbing the bliss. The room revels in its own incongruities while imbuing each picturesque landscape with an element of unease.
Lê’s approach holds even as her lens turns toward men and women who were actually deployed. She resists the explicit horror and bloodshed of combat photography, the death and destruction readily available across all social-media platforms, charting instead the strained social artifice of war itself. Even candid photographs seem somehow orchestrated in Events Ashore (2005–14), a series shot over several years aboard naval ships traveling to the Caribbean, Africa, and Antarctica. In one image, a woman in a U.S. Navy uniform adjusts the tie of an officer preparing to have his picture taken, seated with one hand placed over another, his commendation ribbons on display. Hardly anyone here looks happy, except on a few rare occasions, as in Ship Divers, USS New Hampshire, Arctic Seas (2011), a picture showing men sitting atop a submarine roof, surrounded by sunlit icy water and smiling for the camera. They look like carefree boys posing with a gigantic, subaquatic toy.
The perversity of photographic representation—its potential to aestheticize life and death, war and peace—is confronted directly in the exhibition’s central gallery: a room with walls painted Venetian red, displaying a series titled Someone Else’s War (Gangbang Girl) (2016–23). Most of the works here are not conventional photographs but embroideries, the images copied from a pornographic video showing men in U.S. military uniforms surrounding a prostrate woman. The labor-intensive craftwork plays against the travesty of the crude exploitation inherent to the video, as well as the sheer nastiness of simulated rape. Paradoxically, these depictions are as close as Lê gets to portraying actual victims of war.
The blood-red gallery also contains photographs of scenes derived from the Lupanar of Pompeii, a brothel in the Ancient Roman city. The viewer is invited to make links, to see the practice of rape and pillage as historically pervasive acts of war. Here, Lê and the show’s curators have staged an id-threshold, admitting a more openly aggressive and libidinal take on humanity compared to the decorum on view in the rooms that precede and follow.
Lê is at her most stirring in tableau mode where deceptively lyrical and serene elements are held in suspension with submerged histories. Untitled (Hanoi) (1995) presents a wide, frieze-like view of barefoot boys playing soccer in an open courtyard. A figure in the foreground squats perched on a tree stump, an apparent referee, his back to the camera, face angled in profile, while eight figures skitter for the ball. The picture’s background is filled by the façade of a three-story apartment building; laundry hangs from the balconies and boys lean out, either watching the game below or looking at the camera. There’s a doubling of spectatorship, an evident fascination and recognition on both sides of the lens. Young lives, albeit economically impoverished, are thriving in motion. This high-spirited scene is crammed with myriad portraits in miniature, faces framed by the grid of balconies. And while you can’t detach this setting from the others, Lê has captured a moment where kids appear able to be just kids—not recruits in somebody else’s war.