Space Travels: An-My Lê’s ‘On Contested Terrain’ at The Carnegie

Fans of art photography have three reasons to visit the reopened Carnegie Museum of Art. The new special exhibit An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain (through January 18, 2021) is a big show, an unusual one, and a good one. 

Plan to spend a bit of time with it. There are 110 photos, printed in sizes from large to very large—almost five feet wide—and while some are sensational, many are subtle. You’ll want to give the patterns and details a chance to work their spells.  

Brooklyn-based artist An-My Lê was a Vietnam War refugee. She came to this country as a teenager, along with her family, after they were evacuated from Saigon by U.S. forces near the war’s end in 1975. Lê went to Stanford aiming for medical school but changed fields when an elective course in photography literally caught her eye. Over the years her work has been exhibited worldwide. The Pittsburgh show is her first retrospective at an American museum. 

Deadly Conflicts Kept Alive

The exhibit’s title, On Contested Terrain, states a broad unifying theme. Most pictures relate to some sort of conflict or struggle: between groups of people, as in war; or between humans and nature, as when farmers or miners vie with the terrain itself. Lê is not a war photographer per se, meaning she doesn’t risk her life in active combat zones. She does, however, take pictures of simulated combat. 

One sensational photo captures a battle scene from a movie about the American Civil War. While riflemen in gritty 1860s garb huddle under a horrific hail of incoming artillery, members of a 21st-century film crew edge in to record the sights and sounds. In purely visual terms, the contrast is striking. And if you want a social message, it might be: Yes, we’re still reliving the darn thing.  

Other photos depict live-fire training exercises at a Marine Corps base in the Mojave Desert, and for a weird series of pics, Lê agreed to “embed” with present-day Americans whose hobby is going into nearby woods to reenact the Vietnam War. In one picture, Lê ironically played a Viet Cong sniper, lying prone in the grass and taking aim at guys playing GIs. 

Old-School Power in Panoramas and Portraits

Lê uses vintage-style cameras with wood frames and bellows, which focus the image on a screen at the back. Her typical tool, a Chicago-built Deardorff, produces 5-by-7-inch negatives that allow making massive prints with fine detail. This helps to create subtly powerful effects in her landscape photos. The huge prints convey the sensation of being out there, amid the panoramic immensity of a vast, sprawling scene. 

A picture that’s stayed with me—a wide view of a stone quarry in upstate New York—shows staggering layers cut down into the earth, with piles of rocky rubble strewn across the bottom. Two monstrous, fat-tired trucks rumble along the dirt ramps leading down into the pit. Yet in context, they look like tiny toys, tinier than any a child might use when digging for play in a vacant lot. 

Another subtly powerful photo is a close-in portrait. On a U.S Navy vessel, Lê photographed a young sailor who has “Married To The Sea” tattooed in florid letters down his left arm. Interestingly, Lê did not pose him at the rail of the ship to get an ocean view. She aimed her camera inboard, framing the young man amid a jumble of fittings and gear on the ship’s bridge. A fierce maritime sunlight bleaches his features and casts jagged shadows. Although you can’t see the sea, its presence is felt. And you also get a feeling for the ship: the highly manufactured (almost “unnatural”) rig in which the sailor and his mates confront the sea. 

Not every picture in On Contested Terrain may grab you. Some struck me either as prosaic—I’ve seen stronger photos of protesters in city streets—or as didactic. The pictures of angrily scrawled graffiti didn’t do much for me. But for every miss, I found more than one hit: an awesome farm-country landscape with a single, incredibly tall and slender tree reaching skyward from the flat land, like Jack’s beanstalk. The fascinating, Cartier-Bresson-like group photo of Vietnamese civilians peering up through cardboard eyeshades to watch a 1995 solar eclipse.  

I would recommend the show to anyone. Roam the multi-chambered Heinz Galleries, and stroll past the walls of photos hung outside each door. Stop to commune with the pictures that invite you in. It is a form of space travel you won’t soon forget. 

Credits and Ticket Info

An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain was organized by Dan Leers, curator of photography at Carnegie Museum of Art. The museum requires online registration for a visit starting at a specified time on the day you want to go. For details, see the exhibit’s web page and the “Visit” link at the bottom. Through Jan. 18 at 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers visual arts for Entertainment Central.