Tsunami (2000)

Han Nguyen's work is on view in "Summer Skin" at the Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., through Aug. 26.


This photograph took on new intensity in December 2004 when the tsunami caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean devastated Southeast Asia. Ironically, Indonesia, whose geography was reconfigured by the brunt of the tidal wave, shielded Han Nguyen's homeland of Vietnam from serious damage.

The photograph was made four years earlier in San Diego, to which Nguyen immigrated in the mid-1970s. With its elemental, bipolar composition, it seems to contain all the terror of a world reduced to life-and-death circumstances. Yet it isn't really a picture of a tsunami at all. The wall of water that appears to be coming right at us across a midnight ocean is actually the photographer's own thighs, one in light, the other in shadow, pressed together. That he toned the print with tea suggests both the delicacy and the domesticity of the experience it records.

Photographers often use their personalities as divining rods to guide them through the outside world to the situations they want to document. But they can also turn the camera on their private world, drawing on external phenomena such as weather to give a name to a more ineffable subject. This photograph, Nguyen says, is about "the lightness and calm against the darkness and rage within oneself."

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