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Viet Nam through the lens (November 13, 2006)

A narrow lane (1989) by Minh Dien
A newly released book captures the best of Vietnamese photography of the 20th century. My Ha flips through it and picks her favourites.

One fat photography book ambitiously hopes to capture the essence of a century’s worth of Vietnamese photography, and in some respects, it succeeds.

True to its title, Anh Viet Nam The Ky XX, or Vietnamese Photography in the 20th century, spans the diverse political and social landscape of Viet Nam over 100 years of landslide change.

The recently launched book has received a warm reception from cultural experts and photographers, for good reason: the images are undeniably compelling, capturing the complexity of a nation with many faces. Picturing scenes from times of war and peace, the book conveys the notion that the Vietnamese can be tough when war demands it but are also laid-back during peace.

Autumn lake by Nguyen Ba Trung
Field medical station work under fire in 1970 by Vo An Khanh.
Walk for the vote: In a strip of Our Motherland (1976) by Tran Cu, women take to the streets to encourage the population to cast their first vote for the National Assembly of the unified country in 1976.
The problem with this juxtaposition, however, is that it creates a confusing experience for the book’s viewer. A few well-positioned section headings would have helped orient skimming viewers.

The photographs also might have carried more weight with viewers unfamiliar with Viet Nam’s history and culture had they been paired with brief descriptions. Though some speak for themselves, like Nguyen Hong Nga’s 1999 photograph capturing Sa Pa in springtime, other photographs lose a level of meaning when presented out of context. Minh Dien’s Ngo Hep, A Narrow Lane, a photograph of a groom carrying his bride over a muddy stretch, would not have the same charm if the viewer didn’t know that public displays of affection would have been a rarity in rural Viet Nam in 1989.

Many Vietnamese photographs pay careful attention to details, but sadly their subtle meanings are to some extent lost without any background knowledge. Most viewers would overlook the fact that Tran Cu’s 1976 photograph of a parade of women encouraging people to vote depicts the women positioned in the shape of Viet Nam’s curving coastline.

Though the book’s title refers to photography of the 20th century, it features few images depicting the life of Viet Nam during the first half of the century. The second half, however, is comprehensively documented, with images of the two Indochina wars juxtaposed against images of idyllic country life, with children on the backs of water buffaloes and elderly men and women taking it slow.

This disproportionality is unsurprising, considering the fact that photography wasn’t introduced in Viet Nam until 1869, 30 years after it gained popularity in Europe. When Dang Huy Tru introduced the practise, it quickly became a popular pastime, especially among families in Lai Xa Village of Ha Tay Province. Though it was born out of Europe’s technical advances of the time, when photography entered Viet Nam it shaped a uniquely Vietnamese style of art, a traditional craft in its own right.

One of the key players in the development of photography in Viet Nam was none other than President Ho Chi Minh, who worked as a photographer in Paris’s 17th Arrondisement. A classified ad from the time reads, "Artistic portrait any size with frame from 40 francs. Nguyen Ai Quoc, No 3, Patriach Lane."

The future president, then named Nguyen Ai Quoc, stepped out from behind the camera and into the spotlight after he returned home to Viet Nam to steer it to freedom.

The book documents the role of President Ho Chi Minh and the other major photographers that fueled the progress of a relatively new art form in a developing nation. — VNS

Click here to see the book

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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