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Death And Beauty - When Is War Photography Art?

One of Robert Capa's "The Magnificent Eleven"
One of Robert Capa's "The Magnificent Eleven"
Marcus Woeller

MUNICH - In his Munich art gallery, Daniel Blau has an exhibition called Death and Disaster, which features German and American war photographs.

Whether to view these photographs as documents or art depends on one’s perspective. The pictures 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.

One 1943 photograph of a German soldier standing next to an anti-aircraft gun is impossible to take in as mere documentation. The photographer framed the black-and-white shot as beautifully as an artist, just as 19th-century German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich composed a canvas. The heroic lone soldier next to his gun is juxtaposed against a supremely romantic tundra landscape near Murmansk, in Russia. The triangular composition and deep light-and-dark contrasts raise the image to the level of art.

Another WWII image shows a soldier on a dune. He is part of the landscape. Yet he’s dead; there’s a hole in his helmet from the shot that killed him. Abstracted as art, the scene has something "romantic and wonderful” about it, says Blau, which makes it “hard to believe that it is just a snapshot taken by a photographer trying to avoid a hail of bullets. I ask myself: to what extent did the photographer have any control at all – to what extent is he an artist, or is he merely an observer?"

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

In 1963, Malcolm Browne’s photograph of a self-immolating Vietnamesemonk was awarded a World Press Photo prize and became part of humanity’s collective pictorial memory. It is a symbol of protest against oppression and personal sacrifice to a higher cause. And yet Browne followed the entire immolation over many minutes with his camera. Could he have helped, could he in some way have stopped this? Or was he also pursuing a higher goal, by making the monk’s action of protest public, available to millions of people?

When the story becomes obsolete

"In my opinion, this photograph is neither document nor art – it’s a little of both, or just an extreme form of art," Blau says. The gallery owner believes that the documentary character of the image will fade over time, as the story becomes obsolete. All that will remain is the work of art.

To illustrate his point, he says that when we look today at the bust of a Roman emperor 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 footage.

Technology also influences the way we take in a photograph. In this context, a picture of Adolf Hitler and his staff is of particular interest. In the photo from the Associated Press archive, Hermann Göring is explaining the strategy for the air attack on Poland to Hitler. His arms folded, Hitler studies 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. Horizontal lines in the picture indicate that it was telexed. In war pictures transmitted over the Internet today, the structure of the way the image was photographed and disseminated are similarly part and parcel of 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 depict but in the way all the different elements that are a part of them influence each other.

Parallel to the Munich exhibition, Blau is showing WWII aerial photography at the Paris Photo fair from Nov. 15 to 18, and, jointly with Paris-based Galerie Meyer, NASA photographs from the Apollo moon mission (Nov. 9 to Dec. 1).

"What links all three shows is the propaganda element – the way things are shown to uphold the pride of a nation,” says Blau. It’s a pride that can sometimes leave a bitter taste, when one considers that just 70 years ago Nazis were goose-stepping around the square where Blau’s Munich gallery is located.

For the Munich exhibition, Blau assembled vintage prints from various archives. As major photograph collections are digitized, analog resources become superfluous. Little by little, they are coming onto the market. Background information about the scenes and the photographers is often unknown. Among the identified and well-known names in Blau’s show is American Margaret Bourke-White, the first female war correspondent.

We should consider the huge collection, which Blau is showing in rotation and selling for between 800 euros and 14,000 euros, as part of art history – not only because the photos themselves should not be treated as mere documents, but also because they do document the history of photography and the dissemination of photographed imagery. They also illustrate the horror of violence and atrocities, and the way in which imagery can be used to influence perception. In times of war – and in times of peace.

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

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