In the work of Binh Danh, art is space for the unnamed to be seen. When war is the theme every detail counts. How does one person tackle this massive issue, where death and the value of lives intersect? A one-man job becomes a job about other men. And so for his series “Immortality: The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War” he made chlorophyll prints to express the indelible mark of war on various lands. Soldiers and laymen whose faces and records have been archived are given another chance to be remembered.
Where did you find these pictures?
Most of the pictures came from history books on the Vietnam War and some from Life magazines.
In terms of authorship and artistic control, how different is taking photographs from working with found photos?
Yes, there is a difference; taking pictures is the act of photography. It is having the camera on your body, an extension of your hands, eyes, and mind, as in recalling what you saw with the photograph you have provided for the world to see. But the act of “taking” and “finding” is quite similar to the “making” of a photograph or a work of art. In this case, I consider my chlorophyll print (as well as a traditional photographic print) as a work of art. I “take” photographs from the work that is already available, that is, these images are part of my “media” landscape. When we say, “I take a photograph,” we are presuming that the photo is already there in the real world to be taken. Working with found photos could be considered the same action, as in “I take a photograph” because the images are already there.
What about the concept of ‘immortality’ is applicable to your work?
“Immortality” as the ability to live forever, and the war lives forever in the landscape. The war becomes part of the landscape and nature remembers the trauma in the elements that compose the landscape. We learn in school that all matter is composed of atoms of the various elements. That is, atoms rearranging themselves according to the law of nature. All those atoms that compose us, they carry memories that reach back to the beginning of time and have been in many conflicts before the Vietnam War.
What can a chlorophyll print express that a traditional paper print cannot? Why did you decide on this medium?
In the case of my work, a chlorophyll print expresses a connection to nature. The print, being a leaf, came from nature. It is not too far removed. A traditional paper print is still from nature, but when I look at it I don’t see the connection of nature right away because it has been processed by the photographic industry.
In Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried” there’s an impulse to translate war into words, and yet the narrator is the first to admit that a barrier between expression and truth always exists. What is your own view on war and the expression of its details?
I never think war is a good thing. It is always bad. Nations should always try to find peaceful means to resolve their differences. The only people who get hurt in war or get killed are civilians and soldiers, never the leaders who march them into the war. As citizens, we have to question our leaders’ every step along the way before it is too late. Knowing the details and the action of the past that led us into war is not a bad thing and perhaps it could save our lives.
What is the importance of photography and other visual arts in the understanding of a complex phenomenon as war?
As an artist, I understand the world through my medium. I express my concern in my art. Art could be a vehicle to help my community understand what is going on, as in a war. I take the imagery of war and make art about it so viewers could contemplate and have conversations about the past and present.
How does the tactile experience of art affect the final image?
This is such an important idea. Art is tactile. It is in the now. Art is experiences in the present moment. When I look at a work of art and contemplate on what it means, I am in the here and now. There is not a “final image.” Its image and meaning is constantly changing depending on the state of the world.
How did you become an artist?
I started making art as a kid, like many of us, but I just never gave it up. The art making got more complex as I became an adult. I figure that I can make a living out of it.
With all the technological and cultural shifts, what is it like to be an artist today?
Exciting! Today, one could make a daguerreotype or a digital print. All processes are valuable. It is knowing what to do with each process that could make the work of art successful.
How have concepts of identity and origin informed your work?
It is very important. Knowing where you are from and where you are heading is absolutely necessary to knowing what type of artist you are. History helps define the type of person and artist I want to be.
What has been your most special project to date?
Always my current project, what I am working on now. In my case, I am making daguerreotypes of National Parks in the USA.
Binh Danh is part of the following exhibitions and projects:
- Photography and America’s National Parks at the Eastman Museum
On view: June 4 to October 2, 2016
- LOOK3 festival of the photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia
On view: June 13 to 19, 2016.
- Marcus DeSieno on Merging the Old and New, Manifesting the Unseen, and Exploring the Vastness of the Universe with Photography
- Handcrafted: The Modern Industry Camera by Wayne Martin Belger
- The Street as School: The Photography of Alice Smeets