Death And Beauty – When is war photography art?

MUNICH – In his art gallery in Munich, Daniel Blau presents an exhibition entitled Death and disasterwhich features German and American war photographs.

Whether to see these photographs as documents or as art depends on one’s perspective. The images document not only death and destruction, but also the power of imagery as a propaganda tool and how our perception of historical images changes over time.

A 1943 photograph of a German soldier standing next to an anti-aircraft gun is impossible to consider as mere documentation. The photographer framed the black and white photo as beautifully as an artist, just like 19e-century German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich composed a canvas. The heroic lone soldier beside his weapon is juxtaposed against an extremely romantic tundra landscape near Murmansk, Russia. The triangular composition and deep chiaroscuro contrasts elevate the image to the level of art.

Another WWII image shows a soldier on a dune. It is part of the landscape. Yet he is dead; there is a hole in his helmet from the shot that killed him. Abstract as art, there is something “romantic and wonderful” about the scene, Blau says, making it “hard to believe this is just a snapshot taken by a photographer trying to avoid a rain of bullets. I wonder: to what extent did the photographer have any control – to what extent is he an artist or is he simply an observer?”

Magnum photographer Robert Capa, a Hungarian-born American, became famous as an “embedded reporter” whose lens captured the speed and irrationality of the battle. By contrast, his photo of the dead soldier looks almost staged, or at least as if he had taken a long time to find the right angle and create a harmonious composition, seemingly untroubled by the moral considerations that such an undertaking could call.

In 1963, Malcolm Browne’s photograph of a Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire received a World Press Photo award and entered the collective pictorial memory of humanity. It is a symbol of protest against oppression and of personal sacrifice for a higher cause. And yet, Browne followed the whole immolation for many minutes with his camera. Could he have helped, could he have somehow stopped this? Or was he also pursuing a higher goal, making the monk’s protest action public, accessible to millions of people?

When history becomes obsolete

“In my view, this photograph is neither a document nor an art – it’s a bit of both, or just an extreme art form,” says Blau. The gallery owner believes that the documentary character of the image will fade over time, as the story becomes obsolete. Only the artwork will remain.

To illustrate his point, he says that when we look at the bust of a Roman emperor today, we see an ancient statue, not the portrait of a politician. It may sound cynical, but time transforms the way we look at images – and art sells better than documentary images.

Technology also influences the way we take a picture. In this context, a photo of Adolf Hitler and his staff is of particular interest. In the photo from the Associated Press archives, Hermann Göring explains to Hitler the strategy of the air attack on Poland. Arms crossed, Hitler studies the plans that will mark the beginning of the Second World War. The photographer is unknown, but he must have been part of the inner circle.

His photograph was published in the first weeks of the war. The horizontal lines on the image indicate that it is a telex. In war images transmitted over the Internet today, the structure of how the image was photographed and disseminated is also integral to the immediacy and authenticity communicated. “Death and Disaster” reminds us to question the way we look at photographed images, not just in terms of what they depict, but how all the different elements that make them up influence each other. .

Alongside the Munich exhibition, Blau is presenting aerial photographs from World War II at the Paris Photo Fair from November 15-18 and, in conjunction with Galerie Meyer in Paris, NASA photographs from the Apollo lunar mission (November 9 to December 1) .

“What ties the three shows together is the propaganda element – ​​the way things are shown to uphold a nation’s pride,” Blau explains. It’s a pride that can sometimes leave a bitter taste, when you know that barely 70 years ago, the Nazis were sissies. -go around the square where the Blau’s Munich gallery is located.

For the Munich exhibition, Blau brought together vintage prints from various archives. As large photographic collections are digitized, analog resources become redundant. Little by little, they arrive on the market. Background information on scenes and photographers is often unknown. Among the names identified and well known on Blau’s show is American Margaret Bourke-White, the first female war correspondent.

The huge collection, which Blau exhibits in turn and sells for between 800 and 14,000 euros, must be considered part of the history of art – not only because the photos themselves should not be treated as simple documents, but also because they document the history of photography and the dissemination of photographed imagery. They also illustrate the horror of violence and atrocities, and how imagery can be used to influence perception. In times of war – and in times of peace.

Until November 23, Galerie Daniel Blau, Odeonsplatz 12, Munich, www.danielblau.com.

Tracey L. Sweeney