By Joel Brach | Mar. 10, 2021
Having followed An Le’s vibrant photography for five years, I expected to walk into a world of color as he opened the door to his second-floor Park Slope apartment. Instead, it reminded me of an empty gallery with no photos. The walls were white, decorated by a single abstract painting of a figure that hung above the couch. Its warm orange and brown colors, reminiscent of the Art Informel movement, contrasted with the plain walls of Le’s living room.
He smiled and grabbed a blue face mask from one of the hooks by the door. The 5.6 x 3.5 painting was taller than his 5’3” frame. “I painted this on the night I moved in, actually,” he said.
With no photographs on display, one would never guess that he has been working for eight years as a fashion photographer. A highly acclaimed collaborator, Le has photographed celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, Mariah Carey, Naomi Campbell, and Sarah Jessica Parker for Vogue.
“My mind has so many ideas, thoughts, and imagery, that any external color or unnecessary decorations are overwhelming,” he said, his voice muffled by his mask, explaining his minimalistic way of living.
Le, a Vietnam native, immigrated to pursue his artistic dreams in the United States when he was fifteen years old. “Even as a child, the artist in my brother was apparent,” said Bem Le, his sister, who was visiting him. “In Vietnam, choosing art as a career is not something that was encouraged by our family. An, however, made it work.”
He started his journey at the Fryeburg Academy, one of the oldest private academies in the U.S.
“I remember stepping down from the plane, in Fryeburg, Maine, and feeling the chills on my skin. In Saigon, we only have heat and rain,” An Le said. “As a hub for international students, it was a great place to start my education in the U.S.”
After living a year in Maine, he moved to Granada Hills in Los Angeles, Calif., where he attended a local public school and then Chaminade College Preparatory in West Hills, Los Angeles.
“Biking each morning to an elite private school where my friends’ families had vintage car collections made me appreciate the value of hard work,” he said.
He received awards in art and literature at Chaminade. After graduating high school, he attended the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, where he earned a degree in fine art and business.
“With enough willpower and commitment, anything is possible,” he said as he sipped from a big cup of water, his favorite drink. He never drinks anything stronger than coconut water—that’s his rosé. “I like the taste of water. It’s clean and light,” he said, adjusting his oversized, plain black t-shirt.
Due to visa issues, he couldn’t visit Vietnam for six years but he went back after graduation. Upon landing, he received word that he was a finalist in a competition to win a RED camera. “Coming from school where I had equipment, professors, and resources, I found myself in Vietnam with no connections, equipment, or help and with a final round of a global competition on my hand,” he said.
To compete for the camera, worth $40,000, he had to photograph with one. He called every place within a 180-mile radius, found a RED camera for rent—and ended up winning the competition.
“That was the moment I knew that photography was the right choice,” he said.
That was in 2012. His career has blossomed in the years since. But the Covid-19 pandemic has forced Le to photograph models for brands remotely. “I’m ready to get back to shooting in studios,” he said, opening a drawer to show a pack of red masks. As a signature look, he only wears red on shooting days. “Even my underwear is red.”
“Working with An Le means that we always strive for perfection,” said his agent, Victoria Pavon. “The work and perfecting the work is always the central part of every shoot. There is no room for compromise or acceptance of anything that is not the best.”
Even if brands are happy with the preliminary photographs he sends them, Le continues retouching the images to make sure they’re up to his standards before allowing companies to use them.
“If you love what you do, anything is possible,” he said.