29 Palms by An-My Lê

A long time ago, I used to I live in Los Angeles. While there, I wrote a draft of a screenplay called Twentynine Palms. Clearly, nothing happened with it, but the film, a western, was set in the area around real-life Twentynine Palms, California. I’ve long held a fascination with deserts—owing to, I’m sure, growing up in verdant Michigan—so, I was delighted to recently discover (and fall in love with) An-My Lê’s photo series, 29 Palms, which you can find in its entirety on her website.

The borders of natural spaces—specifically National Parks—fascinates me. Saying that, here at this spot, marked by this fence, is now the start of “preserved” land…it’s mind-boggling, cordoning off land like that. Necessary, sure, to protect it, but this breakdown of space, where it ends, begins, all of it melting together…is utterly captivating.

We, as humans, don’t want to be bothered by our green spaces, generally. We want them to work for us.  (Thinking here of roads, cutting across the landscape, disturbing deep green forests.) So this series by An-My Lê is especially striking in that regard: photos of training exercises just outside of Joshua Tree National Parks (complete with missile launches, fake raids…you name it), showing the beautiful and arid landscape, but also humans and their training drills punishing it.

Her work goes deeper than this, of course, but this was my first take away. Exploring the meaning further (from an interview with An-My Lê at Art21 in 2011):

I just wanted to approach the idea of war in a more complicated and more challenging way” says artist An-My Lê, whose photographic series and film “29 Palms” (2003-04) explore the training exercises and desert landscape near Joshua Tree National Park as a staging ground for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An-My Lê’s photographs and films examine the impact, consequences, and representation of war, framing a tension between the natural landscape and its violent transformation into battlefields. Suspended between the formal traditions of documentary and staged photography, Lê’s work explores the disjunction between wars as historical events and the ubiquitous representation of war in contemporary entertainment, politics, and collective consciousness.

Can’t recommend this, and An-My Lê’s photography in general—beautiful, compelling, desolate, thought-provoking.

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