An-My Lê’s Suez Canal Transit, USS Dwight Eisenhower, Egypt belongs on the short list of
photographic masterworks created in the 21st century.
A five-panel panorama measuring more than 24 inches high and almost 16 feet across, it should ideally be seen on a wall.Reduced in scale for the pages of a magazine, the piece nonetheless retains the spatial and conceptual ambiguities accentuated when viewed from afar in a room.
The first ambiguity derives from Lê’s remarkably deadpan title. It asks us to accept that the five photographs do nothing more than casually depict a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier as it passed through the Suez Canal sometime in 2009 on its way to parts unknown. These are records of a standard nautical maneuver, so the words proclaim, photographs of a non-event.
The bland veracity of this description, however, is immediately contradicted by what’s in front of our eyes. Indeed, the tension between the matter-of-fact language and what initially appears to be a doctored scene, wholly or partly imagined, is the most basic puzzle, one that needs to be resolved before moving to the others.
Is what we’re looking at “real” and in what sense of that loaded word? With its distinct and almost modular foregrounds and backgrounds, Lê’s panorama seems especially questionable as a verifiable record of something.
What, if anything, in these five photographs can we trust to be an honest representation of the title? Which element in the frame is fixed and stable? Is it the flight deck, where a jet aircraft, a helicopter, and a couple of Lego-like vehicles are parked? Or has that gray foreground been patched in from somewhere else and knitted against an “authentic” background of pale yellow desert, two-story houses, and parched trees and bushes? What are we to make of the green metal bridge that reappears in various pieces across the five panels and seems without purpose, running parallel to the picture plane?
The trick answer to the trick question is: everything in these photographs is real. No structures or figures have been deleted or inserted. Lê has cleverly reversed a trompe l’oeil practice of other well-known artists, such as Beate Gutschöw and Barry Friedlander, and made a documentary photograph that looks as if it could be Photoshopped.
The regiment of photographing aboard an American aircraft carrier are circumstances in which Lê has often—and willingly--found herself as she pursues a long-term project to chronicle the U.S. military in the post-September 11 world.
Aircraft carriers are among the largest machines ever built. The USS Dwight Eisenhower, one of ten Nimitz-class supercarriers in the fleet, has a flight deck more than 1,000 feet long and 250 feet wide and each of its four propellers weighs more than 32 tons. Powered by two nuclear reactors, it is a self-contained floating airport that can house a crew of 6,287--the population of a typical American town.
Lê has nonetheless defied convention by minimizing the size of this subject. Unlike most other photographs about gigantism and technology, notably Thomas Struth’s 2007 series on oil and gas platforms, Lê has chosen not to view the supercarrier with excessive awe.
Instead of setting up her 4 x5 camera at a vertiginous angle and reducing people to the scale of ants on the sidewalk, she has chosen to stand at medium height and examine the goings on along only a hundred or so feet of the flight deck.
Lê’s humans, who are small but not microscopic, stroll and stand in this space as though it were a city square. There are few cues as to the impressive length or width of the USS Dwight Eisenhower in the individual photographs; the size of the ship is more subtly conveyed by the decision to break down the ship’s passage into a series of five moments.
That decision further tightens the already conspicuous horizontal structure at work in the piece, with the stacked and stretched bands going top to bottom, zones of activity and color that divide and hold each photograph together: the scuffed blackboard-gray of the carrier deck; the blindingly sere yellow of the desert; the dusty greens and browns of trees and bushes; and a cloudless pale-blue sky. Such formal elegance is not an attempt by Lê to mimic abstract painting in the style of Rothko or Diebenkorn.
The flatness and sharp demarcations within the photographs accurately reflect both the terrain and the event. Unseen here is the water that buoys everything in this country, including enormous ships. The Suez Canal flows with salt water, but not far away the fresh water from the Nile River has supported civilization for millennia. . The construction of each photograph thus reiterates the conditions of the land: the thin dark irrigated strips that run along both sides of the Nile’s banks and then abruptly vanish into bleached sands extending over the horizon.
The event portrayed is, as the title says, simply the movement through a harsh flat semi-desert of a U.S. naval vessel. Lê has dampened our expectations for significant drama by recording only minute changes in each photograph. The flight deck is like a theatrical stage, with rolling sets behind that offer only slight variations of background while the heavy mechanical props (helicopter, jet, trucks) of the central actors remain solidly in place. The slow process of deciphering what is different in each photograph mimics the slow process of the ship as it inches along through these watery narrows.
One could say the panorama is also about access of several kinds. To have taken photographs aboard an American aircraft carrier, even before the events of September11, would have required intensive security checks. Since 2001, vetting has become exponentially more vigorous. Before Lê could think of making this picture, she had to convince the Pentagon that she was not a threat and that her photographs would not reveal too much about either the ship’s itinerary and crew, or its myriad destructive capabilities. In requiring military cooperation to make her pictures Lê is no different from countless predecessors. From Roger Fenton and Timothy O’Sullivan, to Eadweard Muybridge and Felice Beato, to Robert Capa and Lee Miller, to Larry Burrows and Tim Page, photographers have forged strong relationships with the soldiers and sailors they portrayed.
Less obviously, Le’s work is also about the access that the Arab Republic of Egypt, which administers the Suez Canal, has granted the U.S.A. The strategic alliance between the two sovereign nations is implicit in a heavily armed ship being allowed to pass unhindered through the other’s territory. We might assume the Eisenhower was here in 2007 so that its 60 or so aircraft could protect oil shipping in the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean in case of Iranian meddling. These jets, too, might have been conducting other military business--including the targeting of Al-Qaeda in Somalia--that Egypt has countenanced or aided even if its government would never dare publicly to approve them.
Wars are the essence of newsworthiness. When they erupt—although, as we are learning, far less so as they endure--they crowd everything else off the front page. Throughout photographic history, they have also been events in which journalists and photographers have tested their skills and courage.
Lê’s ongoing series on American military operations around the world can’t be called newsworthy and does not prove her daring. Instead, whether with U.S. Army and Marine recruits undergoing simulated combat in the California desert as preparation for deployment to Iraq, or with the U.S. Navy as its fleets cruise the globe, she captures scenes and events where there is no evident danger or even threat Her photographs are quotidian and muted, attributes that distinguish her work from wire-service photojournalism.
There is a timelessness, a Homeric tone, to Lê’s cinematic treatment of a ship making its way through the waters of the Middle East. Heavily armed vessels have for centuries gone looking for trouble in the Mediterranean. Every nation since the Achaeans sailed to Troy has relied on its navy to extend its imperial reach to foreign shores. It was the U.S. Navy that first proved in 1910 and 1911 that an airplane could fly and safely land on the deck of a ship.
Lê is an American citizen because of war. Born in Saigon in 1960, a political refugee who fled with her family to the U.S. in 1975 after the North Vietnamese overwhelmed the South, she has witnessed the American military’s ability to pulverize and kill in the name of peace. Her photographs are imbued with a sense of war as deeply tragic and mundane, an endless historical process that the camera can only graze the surface of. “Suez Canal Transit, USS Dwight Eisenhower, Egypt” is a picture of many things that lie buried under and behind the visible information in the prints: ancient enmities, failed nation-states, treaties, religious friction, wealthy and poor countries, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the conjunction here between two wondrous examples of technology, one dating from the late 19th century (the Egyptian canal opened in 1869) and one from the late 20th century (the U.S. supercarrier was commissioned in 1977).
The title is apt in its monotony. The day that this colossal piece of steel, bristling with the latest in American weaponry, cruised through this constructed passage of water was a day without incident. What makes this such a telling image about the confidence of power is that nothing much happened we will read about one day in history books. Indeed, if you look closely, most of the crew was doing exactly what Lê was doing: they were taking photographs.
Suez Canal Transit is hanging in the Joyce and Robert Menschel Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until Jan. 2, 2012 as part of After the Gold Rush: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, an exhibition organized by associate curator Douglas Eklund.