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 Vietnamese monk 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.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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