Death and Beauty – When is war photography an art?
MUNICH – In his Munich art gallery, Daniel Blau presents an exhibition entitled Death and disaster, which features German and American war photographs.
Whether to view these photographs as documents or as art depends on one’s perspective. The images bear witness not only to death and destruction, but also to 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 take as simple documentation. The photographer framed the black and white photo as beautifully as an artist, just like 19e-century, the German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich composed a canvas. The heroic lone soldier next to his gun is juxtaposed against an extremely romantic tundra landscape near Murmansk, Russia. The triangular composition and the deep contrasts of light and dark 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 because of the gunshot that killed him. Abstract as art, there is something “romantic and wonderful” about the scene, Blau says, which makes it “hard to believe that this is just a snapshot taken by a photographer trying to avoid an image. rain of bullets. I wonder: how much control did the photographer have – how much of an artist, or just an observer? “
Magnum photographer Robert Capa, an American of Hungarian origin, rose to fame as an “integrated reporter” whose lens captured the speed and irrationality of battle. In contrast, his photo of the dead soldier seems almost staged, or at least as if he took a long time to find the right angle and create a harmonious composition, seemingly unmoved by the moral considerations that such an undertaking could call.
In 1963, Malcolm Browne’s photograph of a self-immolating Vietnamese monk received a World Press Photo award and has become part of the collective pictorial memory of mankind. It is a symbol of protest against oppression and personal sacrifice to a higher cause. And yet, Browne followed the entire immolation for many minutes with his camera. Could he have helped, could he somehow stop it? Or was he also pursuing a higher goal, by making public the monk’s protest action, accessible to millions of people?
When history becomes obsolete
“In my opinion, 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 work of art 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 is transforming the way we view images – and art sells better than documentary images.
Technology also influences the way we take a photo. In this context, a photo of Adolf Hitler and his team is particularly interesting. In the photo from the Associated Press archives, Hermann Göring explains to Hitler the strategy of the air attack on Poland. Arms folded, Hitler studied the plans that would mark the start of World War II. 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 in the image indicate that it has been telexed. In the images of war transmitted over the Internet today, the structure of how the image was photographed and broadcast is also integral to the immediacy and authenticity communicated. “Death and Disaster” reminds us to question the way we look at photographed images, not only in terms of what they represent but how all the different elements that are part of them influence each other. .
Alongside the Munich exhibition, Blau is showing aerial photographs from WWII at the Paris Photo fair from November 15 to 18 and, jointly with the Paris-based Meyer Gallery, NASA photographs of the Apollo lunar mission (9 November to December 1). .
“What ties the three shows together is the element of propaganda – the way things are presented to maintain the pride of a nation,” says Blau. It’s a pride that can sometimes leave a bitter taste, when you consider that barely 70 years ago, the Nazis were geese. – walk around the square where the Blau’s Munich gallery is located.
For the Munich exhibition, Blau collected vintage prints from various archives. As large collections of photographs are digitized, analog resources become redundant. Little by little, they are arriving on the market. General information about the scenes and the photographers is often unknown. Among the identified and well-known names on Blau’s show is American Margaret Bourke-White, the first female war correspondent.
Consider the huge collection, which Blau shows in rotation and sells for between 800 and 14,000 euros, as 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 diffusion 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 23 November, Galerie Daniel Blau, Odeonsplatz 12, Munich, www.danielblau.com.