Following is the second half of the conversation between An-My Lê and filmmaker Michael Almereyda that took place on May 5, 2008 at the Mid-Manhattan Library. This event was co-presented with BOMB Magazine.
ALMEREYDA: There’s one bit of work that you did that I am really dazzled by that’s not featured in the movie—your video footage of Twentynine Palms. The black and white footage of the particular company at Twentynine Palms is shocking because you recognize how young these people are. We see war movies all of the time, and you see actors striving to be tough and war-ravaged, but when you see people going into war, it’s shocking. I was shocked by this footage because they seem so innocent. That’s a tricky word to apply, but they seemed beautiful—the light and their attitudes. A particular shot roves around their faces while they’re being instructed on something, but you can’t hear it because it’s without sound, so it’s just a kind of feat of observation. It’s really beautiful. The wind is rustling through their hair, they’re backlit; it’s not glamorous, but it is beautiful. I look forward to seeing it again. What are you doing with that? Is that going to be shown in a gallery at some point? Can you talk about your other film work?
LÊ: Yes. You encouraged me to make films—that’s how I started. Originally I wanted to do film because of sound. I felt that pictures could not reproduce sound. And some of the dialogues that I heard were so amazing.
ALMEREYDA: I didn’t realize that.
LÊ: So I started doing that. Then after looking at the footage it turned out that film provided the kind of ideal portraits that I had been looking for. I feel it’s been beginner’s luck! I would like to do some more, but I’m not sure what I want to do.
ALMEREYDA: In the video piece that was just shown, there are people returning and being embraced by their families. So you were shooting there, but you haven’t organized or edited it yet?
LÊ: Yes, I haven’t organized it yet. I’m mainly a photographer so…
ALMEREYDA: I look forward to seeing that edited. Part of my homework was to actually read this book that I’ve been looking at the pictures of for so long. There’s a very good essay by Richard Woodward and in it he goes to great lengths, and maybe overreaches a bit, to draw historical references to what you’ve done and how this relates to the history of landscape photography, and how landscape photography measures not just human time but also geographic time. I wonder how much of that you’d absorbed from Timothy O’Sullivan and then thought about as you were taking pictures?
LÊ: Well, I certainly love Timothy O’Sullivan’s work, [Roger] Fenton, [Eugene] Atget and all of the 19th-century photographers. I consider myself a landscape photographer working with a large format camera because I love the way it describes the space, the details, and the air between things. So when it came to working with the particular subject of war or the re-enactors, I had to reconsider my tool. I worked with a medium format at first and it did not describe space in the way that I wanted to. I’m not necessarily just interested in people fighting, holding guns, but I’m interested in people fighting and holding guns in the landscape. I felt that the large format camera was necessary so I just continue on with that tool and try to make it work. In that sense, I’m sort of a 19th-century photographer. I think it’s also about not describing the action, but about describing something before it happens or right after it happens. And there’s no reason why you can’t do that with a view camera.
ALMEREYDA: I’m haunted a bit by Robert Capa—he was taking pictures in the Second World War or was it the Spanish Civil War?—and he said that if your pictures aren’t good enough it’s because you’re not close enough. There’s almost an inverted aesthetic, or sensibility, or moral ethic now that it’s almost too easy to have the immediate. It’s become a sort of cliché for a certain kind of journalism to have the closer shot. By getting farther back, you can have more perspectives and more of an understanding of contradictory things. Do you think a lot about how far back you have to get?
LÊ: Yes, I actually think about, and ask my students all of the time, how far can you move back and still express the original idea that you have? By doing that, you actually have to deal with more things and you can actually make a more complicated picture. You keep your original idea, but see how far you can move back while still describing it.
ALMEREYDA: The new show, which has pictures taken in Antarctica, and is, I guess, specifically related to German photography, has a lot of pictures that have to do with scale and distance. I could sense a little bit of [Andreas] Gursky hovering as a reference point. There’s something about the inhuman nature of human activity in a landscape that is really affecting in these new pictures. And they’re in color, so maybe that triggers more memories or references to Gursky? There’s this sense of the landscape as being very vulnerable, but still tougher than the humans who are crawling around in it. The switch is that it’s not war anymore… Maybe you can just talk about how you got to Antarctica and what the mission became as you found your way there?
LÊ: This new work is about the ocean and military power. I went on a lot of aircraft carriers and destroyers and on oil platforms off the coast of Iraq that the Navy was patrolling. I learned about non-combatant work that the military does in Antarctica and also in Greenland. I thought, well it would be interesting as a sort of counterpoint to look at that. So I went there and photographed military operations that the Navy and Air Force do in support of science. I was really glad that I did go, and I think it really shows in the work.
I think it’s a great counterpoint in terms of the landscape because it prevails no matter what happens. If there’s a war, the landscape kind of renews and revives itself. And here, it’s about people trying to preserve the landscape. It was very compelling and poignant for me.
ALMEREYDA: There’s an essay that Luc Sante wrote; he teaches at Bard, as you do. He writes pretty beautifully on photography. I was slipped this essay, and there are a couple of lines that I couldn’t help but quote and share with you tonight because it hasn’t been printed. In the essay, he talks about the nature of the violence in some of these landscapes, how the woods and the fields seem to be patient, and that they seem to be indulging the violence like a “kindly, if distracted, parent.” Even though there’s a chill and a distance in your work, there is a belief in the landscape. In my mind, it aligns you with Robert Adams. Could you talk about his work?
LÊ: Yes, he was a great inspiration. I think one of his strategies is to draw people in with these incredible pictures that are so well-made. I mean, beautiful may not be the word, but they’re just so well made that you have to pay attention. He draws you in and then has a message. It’s as if he’s trying to tell you something about urban development or he’s trying to tell you something about how the environment is just being massacred, but I think he never hits you over the head; he never really patronizes, or proselytizes. His photographs are landscape with content and a smart message.
ALMEREYDA: The Art21 profile of him is worth looking up because he’s very eloquent, and I think he has a lot in common with what you’re doing. He talks about the seduction of light. And at the same time he’s both mourning and celebrating the landscape. I wanted to ask why you switched to color in this new book…
LÊ: I switched to color for a very practical reason, but I think it turned out to be the right thing, and now it’s bigger than the original reason. I switched to color because I was interested in describing the metallic gray of the ship and how it differs when compared with the gray of the ocean or of other things that are more organic. That was my original reason for switching. Yes. And then the more I got into the work, I realized that, for example, the Twentynine Palms work is in black and white, and not that you equate black and white with the past, but I think there’s something kind of allegorical about that work and about history repeating itself in terms of Vietnam and of making the same mistake with Iraq. In contrast, I think the new work is more about current and contemporary issues, so color is okay.
ALMEREYDA: What are you planning next?
LÊ: Well, I only have two more trips to finish up and then I’ll be in a real depression, not knowing what to do next. I’m going to Greenland because the Air Force guys I met in Antarctica are going to fly up there for the NSF [National Security Forum]. Then there’s a big exercise in Hawaii that will include 17 nations with ships and the whole thing.
ALMEREYDA: And fireworks?
LÊ: And fireworks… But I talked to them today and they won’t actually let me see that.
LÊ: For safety reasons.
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