Documentary photographer William E. Crawford was one of the first Western photographers to gain access to North Vietnam after the war ended. He has photographed the capital, Hanoi, at regular intervals since 1985, concentrating on the colonial and indigenous architecture, urban details, landscapes and intimate portraits of people in their home settings, street scenes and the city’s surrounding countryside.
Crawford is the only known Western or Vietnamese photographer to approach Hanoi as a study over time. In the years before the tourist boom, he was often the only American in the North. Crawford’s early photographs reveal a city in extreme disrepair, but with enough colonial and precolonial detail remaining to give a sense of what the city had looked like in better times.
In 1986, the communist leadership began to shift from Soviet-style central planning toward free-market economic reforms. As a result, Hanoi has been transformed over the last three decades, becoming a textbook example of how traditional Asian and developing cities have often been torn down or allowed to crumble, only to reemerge in modernized form. What modernization looks like, and the choices people make on its behalf, is the essential theme of “Hanoi Streets.”
Crawford’s powerful and evocative color photographs are accompanied by his informative and engaging essays in which he shares his experiences traveling around Hanoi engaging with the people, his observations about the customs and culture, and the changes he saw over time as a result of economic reform and advancing globalization and shifting diplomatic relations with the U.S. He also provides a brief primer on Vietnam’s complex history.
Crawford recalls his first trip in 1985, accompanied by four returning American veterans and two documentary film crews as “one of the first postwar conversations of any sort between the two countries. … Despite the embargo and the wounds of the American War, there was no obvious anti-American hostility … the lack of hostility towards Americans, at least in the North, was a relief to me.”
In the concluding essay, he sums up what Hanoi looks like today: “The look in Hanoi, from colonial days until now, is one of freewheeling juxtaposition, the result of placing Eastern and Western styles right next to one another and letting them, in a visual sense, duke it out. It’s the artless combination of styles and references that makes Hanoi so visually entertaining. Restraint is boring.”
William E. Crawford received a BA from Yale University in 1970 and an MFA in photography in 1973 from Yale School of Art. He studied with Walker Evans and John T. Hill. He previously published “The Keepers of Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes.” Relevant earlier exhibitions include: “Photographs of Hanoi by an American Photographer,” sponsored by the Friends of Hanoi, the Museum of the Revolution, Hanoi, Vietnam, in November 1995; and “Hanoi at a Thousand Years,” sponsored by the Peoples Committee to Celebrate the 1000th Anniversary of Hanoi, Hanoi Gallery, Hanoi, Vietnam, in March 2010.
Photography by William E. Crawford
“Hanoi Streets 1985-2015: In the Years of Forgetting” by William E. Crawford; book release is Aug. 28 by Images Publishing.
Weightlifter, 1987. (© William E. Crawford from the book “Hanoi Streets 1985-2015: In the Years of Forgetting”)