A woman stands behind a large-format camera on a tripod.

Portrait of the artist. Courtesy of MacArthur Foundation. Photo: Matt Carr

An-My Lê recently spoke about her work as part of the online program, A Shared Past in an Unfolding Present: A Conversation with An-My Lê. An excerpt from the conversation follows. 

Silent General is an ongoing project I started in 2015. My previous work included photographing marines training in the Californian desert for war in the Middle East, photographing Vietnam War reenactors, and lastly traveling with the navy and the marines to explore the military-industrial complex. But after I finished that project, I felt that war was coming to the home front. I felt that our democracy was being threatened. All the issues unfolding were being considered in such a rhetorical and simplified way, that I felt compelled to explore them myself.

One of the first issues was the contestation of confederate monuments. They were important to me because they talk about history, but then also they talk about the present. That ability to go back and forth, and to make us re-examine where we’ve been was extremely important.

The statue of General Robert E. Lee in New Orleans was contested in 2015 and by 2017, it had been taken down and was in Homeland Security storage. It’s not that I didn’t try to be present when he was taken down in New Orleans, but I was never able to be there at the right moment. Managing the impossibility of being present as the event unfolds became a way of working that I have embraced.

A large statue of a man on a horse is next to a standing statue of a man in a storage container made of plywood.

Fragment VI: General Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard Monuments, Homeland Security Storage, New Orleans, Louisiana, from the series “Silent General,” 2017, An-My Lê. Pigment print, 55 3/4 x 39 1/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © An-My Lê

So instead, I tried to look at the edges. I tried to consider the moment in an oblique way, and here I got really lucky. I got access to the place where the monuments were stored. They are exceptionally large. You have to realize that the opening in the back there is actually the size of a regular door. So the statues are monumental, and I think the statues were brought to the location then the shed was built around them.

I use a view camera, a 19th-century style camera. I use five by seven inches sheet films. The camera’s on the tripod. The lens is completely manual—meaning you have to open it and close it and cock the shutter. There’s a bellow between the lens and the ground glass where you eventually slide the film in. There is no mirror so the image is upside down on the ground glass. There is a real disconnect between the moment you view the image and when you actually take the picture, and you only get two sheets of film in a film holder. It’s a whole process, but it’s wonderful in that the camera, the large film, gives you an incredible physical and experiential description of the moment. You stand next to the camera when you photograph, so it’s like a piece of furniture. You don’t have the camera in front of your face, which I think is wonderful.

A large sheet hangs between two pillars in a traffic circle, behind the sheet is a bronze sculpture of a man on a horse.

Fragment I: General P.G.T. Beauregard, New Orleans, Louisiana, from the series “Silent General,” 2016, An-My Lê. Pigment print, 40 x 56 1/2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © An-My Lê

To be able to capture the statues like this, away from the kind of memorialization that had been going on with them was interesting. But at the same time, I also felt that I was able to show the sense that Lee is still safeguarding the city which was important for the New Orleanians. Whether they were for or against the removal of the monuments, they felt comfort in having Lee in the circle overlooking the entire city. I wanted to be able to suggest both those things.

Photographing monuments is not a new thing for me. I actually had been photographing sculptures and monuments previous to going to graduate school. But I think that those photographs were very academic; they were rooted in this tradition of Western artmaking. Well, these new monuments are now brimming with history and tension.

Each one of my projects—photographs of Vietnam, the reenactors, the marines training in 29 Palms—came together as a trilogy to talk about history, to talk about the war and history, to talk about memories and how we deal with the myth of the war in the midst of unfolding contemporary events. And that’s what “Silent General” is about.

An-My Lê lives and works in Brooklyn, NY, and is a professor of photography at Bard College. She was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2012 and has received the Tiffany Comfort Foundation Fellowship (2009) and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1997), among other awards. “On Contested Terrain,” a retrospective of Lê’s work, is currently on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Fragment VI from An-My Lê’s “Silent General” series will be on view as part of In Focus: Protest, from June 29–October 10, 2021 at the Getty Center Museum. View her other works on her website.