An-My L

10.11.13

An-My L, Testing Truss Bridges in Statistics and Engineering Design Class, Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut, 2013, archival ink-jet print, 35 x 49 3/8”.


An-My L’s photographs, whether of American soldiers in training or of her native Vietnam, typically focus on the preparation and aftermath of the US military’s activities. Here, L speaks about working on her first commission: photographs of the Coast Guard, recently installed in the USCG’s newly opened headquarters at the Department of Homeland Security campus in Washington, DC. Additionally, L’s work is on view in “Front Room: An-My L” at the Baltimore Museum of Art from October 9 to February 23, 2014.

I HAVE BEEN DRAWN to organizations that have a rigorous structure and hierarchy. And when I’m making a group portrait, it is very important for me to bring out each person’s individuality within this ranking—to show what each person represents within the organization’s structure and within the group’s psychology. In Testing Truss Bridges in Statistics and Engineering Design Class, Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut, for example, each person distinguishes him or herself, and stands on his or her own. If you break down the subtle psychology of the image, there is something very interesting about each person’s features—whether it is a man or a woman, whether the person seems more outgoing or shy. Even though they are all in uniform with their cropped or pulled-back hair, what is interesting is how the work can suggest something distinctive about each of them. In an abstract way, perhaps, this is about scale, which is an issue that I have always been committed to as a landscape photographer.

Because of my personal history, I have been much more intrigued by the combatant arms of the military. Five years ago after following the Navy and Air National Guard to Antarctica, I wanted to explore other military activities in the Arctic seas. I have since been allowed on a US Navy attack submarine operating near the North Pole, but back then that possibility seemed extremely remote. Instead I contacted the Coast Guard and embarked on their icebreaker Healy while it supported scientific missions in the Bering Sea. This led to the General Services Administration commission. I had originally wanted to focus on Alaska, because the landscape is so beautiful there and I often think of myself as a landscape photographer. But as I started working on this project, I realized I should expand. I traveled to different Coast Guard stations and training centers throughout the US. The landscape may not have been as exotic as the Arctic or to Asia, but I was very taken by photographing people.

From the beginning I was anxious about taking on this commission because the Coast Guard does not have a combatant role and its work is unequivocally meaningful and heroic. It seemed that there wouldn’t be much room for the ambiguities and tensions I usually like to mine. In the end, however, it was a fascinating journey, which was enormously rich photographically and in terms of personal growth. I learned that there’s a future for me outside of the military. As long as I can work with an organization that has a history and some kind of structure that requires training, or some kind of indoctrination, I could probably find something appealing, inspiring, and challenging. I always ask myself what else interests me besides the memory, impact, and consequences of war. I’m not photographing the unfolding of war, so what is it? Is it the role of the individual within a very rigid structure? Is it that concept of having to conform, perform, and adapt while still being an individual? The idea of the power structure and the role of the individual within that power structure are very interesting to me and I am certain that this tension, which is obviously very strong in the military, exists elsewhere. You always think of where to go next, and perhaps that is an indication of something for me to follow.

The curator Susan Kismaric recently brought up a connection to Frances Benjamin Johnston while we were installing my photographs at the Coast Guard Headquarters. I’ve looked at Johnston’s work throughout the years, but not for any particular reason. Now, with that conscious link, I’ve looked his The Hampton Album again, and as much as they may differ, our works have many common threads. Johnston’s pictures are more didactic, but I feel very close to them. We both use the view camera and work in deliberate fashions and we care deeply about location and placement. We are both photographing people at work and interested in showing their tasks and clearly describing their gestures. In our work, people are very mindful, focused, and absorbed in what they are doing. But in Johnston’s Hampton pictures, the students never look up. Because of my interest in teasing out each person’s individuality, I task my pictures in terms of portraiture.

— As told to Leslie J. Urea