Back in the 1950s the Swiss photographer Robert Frank photographed the United States. Frenetically racing back and forth across America’s highways, he amassed a vast collection of photographs—stark and unyielding images seen through a foreigner’s trained eye. He was sympathetic but detached. His photos shocked by their suddenness and how the moment stood for the eternal. His seminal book was The Americans.
In Lost in Vietnam (George F Thompson Publishing/Casemate, 192 pp., $45) Chuck Forsman, a University of Colorado Professor of Art Emeritus, has done a similar thing in Vietnam—albeit traveling by motorbike. Like Frank, he has eschewed the monumental landscapes and the historical documentation. There aren’t any grand temples or grandiose French public buildings, although Vietnam’s long history whispers in every one of the book’s 112 images.
And perhaps surprisingly for a Vietnam War veteran who is also an accomplished photographer and painter, there’s little indication of the country’s wartime past. Forsman’s images are crammed with people, but there are no celebrities or politicians—just folks going about living their lives.
In Forsman’s book Vietnamese live and work and play and work some more. They’re tourists and brides and cooks and laborers and fishmongers. Bicyclists wend their way through monsoon-drenched city streets and boys play soccer in a field shared with water buffalo. Everywhere life is hard, and everywhere life is beautiful—and full of color and light.
Forsman’s work doesn’t have the gritty rawness of Frank’s grainy black-and-white images. Forsman also has been nurtured by “the decisive moment,” art photography, fashion photography, and travel photography. And, of course, it’s all in color.
But mostly Forsman’s work is remarkable for its curiosity and its respect for the people and culture of Vietnam. With each carefully composed image, he asks, “What’s this?” Or at least says, “Look here!”
This is a remarkable book and a remarkable documentation of the lives and cultures of the Vietnamese people. The photos are preceded by a heartfelt and loving introduction by Le Ly Hayslip (When Heaven and Earth Changed Places) about Mẹ Vietnam—Mother Vietnam, its significance to the Vietnamese, as well as its history and continuing fascination.
Forsman’s website is chuckforsman.com