JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Aperture (here). Hardcover (13 x 10½ inches), 192 pages, 125 full-color images, with 3 gatefolds. Includes notes by Geoff Dyer. $89.95 (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Events Ashore affirms An-My Lê’s place in the top ranks of contemporary photographers. The same classical poise and restraint that lifted her first monograph, Small Wars (2005), above the typical views of the U.S. military during the George W. Bush-era distinguishes this follow-up effort from the Barack Obama years.
While the earlier book consisted of black-and-white images, primarily of desert landscapes where regiments of U.S. Marines trained in the Mojave for deployment to Iraq, this larger collection marks her smooth transition into color and records her travels with another branch of the armed forces, the U.S. Navy, as it patrols the globe from the tropics to Antarctica. Using her 5×7 camera to make ocean seascapes and portraits of sailors aboard ship and on leave, she is nonetheless as concerned as before with capturing the fragility of individual human actors enlisted to play their roles in the vast historical theater of war.
The theme is an inevitable one for Lê to explore. She fled Vietnam as a refugee in 1975 and found her way to the U.S. in 1977. “My life has been completely affected by American foreign policy,” she told The New Yorker this year. “They were the perpetrators. But they were also the saviors.”
What couldn’t be predicted is that Lê would have developed such a clear-eyed but removed, almost impersonal, perspective on her own destiny, and on the enforcing machinery and operators of the Pax Americana.
The title of the new book is not entirely accurate. Only the first and last of the four sections depict U.S. sailors on land; in the second and third they are usually seen working aboard various ships, primarily aircraft carriers and submarines.
There is so much to examine, mull over, and admire in these pictures, beginning with the way the palette coordinates with latitude—sparkling greens and blues as the Navy carries her near the Equator; washy grays and whites as she accompanies parties across the snow-covered wastes near the South Pole. Unlike Struth and Salgado, Lê doesn’t set up her camera at harrowing angles, even when she is looking at or riding on some of the biggest ships in the world. In her magnificent panorama of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower as it passed in 2009 through the Suez Canal—one of the great photographs of this century—she has framed the mundane voyage so that blue sky, green vegetation, yellow desert sand, and gray carrier deck are stacked and equally weighted. The bulldozers and storage berms, essential for prolonged survival on Antarctica, exercise the same claim on her attention as the black conning tower of the submarine USS New Hampshire poking darkly through the ice.
Her large-format, landscape-based compositions recall works by 19th century ancestors in other foreign territory—Fenton and Robertson in the Crimea, Brady’s and Gardner’s men during the American Civil War, O’Sullivan and Muybridge and Bell as they tagged along with U.S. armies in the West.
Like them, she seems curious about everything and everyone necessitated by the discipline of military life. Mechanics and look-outs are as frequently portrayed as jet pilots. The challenge of sifting for flecks of pictorial gold in rivers of unpromising material excites her. Her subjects are the day-to-day tedium of washing down a ship, or preparing for battle—with target practice or learning to work as a team to put out a fire with a fire hose—rather than battle itself. Both Small Wars and Events Ashore are more apt to convey potential rather than actual violence.
This atmosphere of constant readiness for war can take this viewer back even further, to a space-time long before photography. A training exercise in 2010 for an amphibious assault on an Indonesian island is centuries removed from Bronze-Age Acheans landing on the shores of Troy, but some elements haven’t changed. Soldiers and sailors share common bonds across twilight zones that civilians will never understand. The graffiti on the walls of a Da Nang bar, where Lê photographed in 2011, has local references. But the group dynamics of three bored and horny sailors killing time with a bar maid and hoping to get lucky is timeless.
The young Americans in Lê’s portraits are like the Roman legions who were asked to guard the outskirts of the Empire. And just as historians have made wildly different judgments about whether the actions of those spear carriers and their emperors were civilizing or brutal, some will inevitably view her as being too close to the bureaucrats that have allowed her to cruise on U.S. military transports hither and yon. It won’t matter to her critics that in some cases she photographs the Navy performing disaster relief in Haiti or giving passage to biologists for tagging of wildlife in Antartica. She is without doubt embedded, so much that the Pentagon would not object to any of the photographs in this book.
To me, such carping is beside the point or, rather, the tension between her cool approach and the hot topics of violence and war and the debatable role of America as a global power is what makes her pictures special. Compared to most of her peers—at least those working along the broad margins of documentary–she has been uniquely blessed—or is it cursed?—to have found a theme with profound autobiographic and historical resonance.
Lê’s photographs portray, as no one else’s do, the strangeness of daily life for the men and women paid to guard our national interests, questionable though they may be. Joining the military in any country is not like having any other job. Not until closing the book did I realize that none of the people in these pages enjoyed what I could call “free” time. Even when ashore and seemingly doing nothing, they could not do as they pleased and were at the mercy of their government.
Unlike everyone else here, Lê is an independent agent who could have stopped this unpredictable project at any time. She didn’t originally sign up to be a member of the U.S. Navy, even if in her own dedicated fashion she has spent weeks and years photographing its inner workings, events ashore and aboard ship that will never make the front page. I, for one, am grateful for her service.
Collector’s POV: An-My Lê is represented in New York by Murray Guy (here). Her work has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.