‘An -My Lê On Contested Terrain‘ is (or was) a retrospective exhibition of An-My Lê’s work from the mid 1980s through the late 2020s that began at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2020 and travelled all over. On Contested Terrain is the exhibition catalog, co-published by Aperture, and it was the Charcoal photobook of the month for October 2020.
First off, let me say that I don’t usually go in for retrospective books. Long time readers will remember me saying this before. Sure, they’re good for getting a feel for the photographer and their work, but retrospectives rarely include full series. It’s always mere selections, and I want to see the whole project. This is probably why it’s taken me so long to get around to a review of this book. It’s not that the work is bad: on the contrary, Lê’s work is incredible, well seen, and masterfully photographed. It’s just that the selections do different work than that performed by the series from which they came.
On Contested Terrain presents work in reverse-chronological order, beginning with “Silent General” (2015-and ongoing) and including: “Events Ashore,” ( 2005-14); “Trap Rock” (2005-7); “29 Palms” (2003-4); “Small Wars” (1999-2002); “Viêt Nam” (1994-1998); and some early photographs of “Sculpture,” made in 1986-92 while working with the Companions du Devoir et du Tour de France, a crafts guild founded in the Middle Ages. Roughly half the book goes to the first (most recent) two series; roughly half the book is in color (work since 2005), and the rest in black & white. Lê’s vision and ability to see becomes clear quickly, and it’s fun to track how the work changed over time. Each series opens with a brief synopsis, and essays by Dan Leers (“Theater of War”), Lisa J. Sutcliffe (“The Course of Empire”), and David Frinkel (“The Good Soldiers”), and an interview between Lê and Viet Thanh Nguyen appear, sprinkled between some of the selections.
I’ll happily admit right here that I haven’t (yet?) bothered to read any of the essays or the interview. Shame on me, I guess, and, again, I really can’t get out of bed for a retrospective. A year or two ago, I would write that, feel bad about it, pause my review and read everything, then probably go and buy some of the books. But here in 2022, I’m not feeling it at all and won’t bother with either, despite really enjoying and appreciating Lê’s work and project. I may regain interest one day, but the ship has sailed for On Contested Terrain and if you want to hear more about the essays, well, buy a copy of the book. It’s a good one, especially if you don’t mind—or even appreciate and enjoy—retrospective-type books.
Lê’s work fist into a lineage, in my mind, right alongside, more recently, Shore and Soth and Sternfeld, Friedlander, even, and reaching back to Evans and Atget. Sure, she might be shooting smaller-format work than the others did, but it’s all beautifully descriptive large format, even in the diminutive 5×7 scale that Lê tends to work in. The subject matter is there too, though Lê’s work has something of a political tinge to it that the others don’t quite. Lê’s current project focuses on political divisions, more or less, and includes quite a few pictures of racist statuary in the south. Friedlander’s photographs of the same (and similar) statuary hit a bit different, but, then, his project was different, and the times were different, sorta. (I could go on, and did, but I’ll leave it to your imagination and/or memory, and ask your parents/grandparents.) Lê’s landscapes and portraits read very similarly (to me) to the white men mentioned earlier, and it is formally similar: landscapes, shot from a slightly elevated position, very detailed and descriptive; straight ahead portraits of more or less ordinary people in largely underwhelming settings; group/action shots that could almost be in the 35mm street vein, if not for the large format detail and all. Really, it’s beautiful work.
When I started this review, I mostly planned to just drop this book in the Half Price pile and sell it off alongside a bunch of other stuff I’ll never read or look at again, but in going through it a few times, I’m really struck by the work and the messaging. Lê is a master, and On Contested Terrain is a brilliant introduction to her work.
Given that it was published by Aperture, On Contested Terrain remains available, and is pretty cheap, and if you’re unfamiliar with Lê and her work, her website is a don’t miss, with good selections of her major series and a CV and all. Once again, I’m thankful for the years of good books I wound up with thanks to my 39 months of continuous Charcoal subscriptions (a three-month stint and then three years in a row). Good stuff.