Wish fulfillment is one of the prime purposes of pop culture, and magical transformations of the body are some of its most common manifestations. Weaklings morph into superheroes; the crippled ex-Marine in Avatar assumes a fleet-footed virtual body. Too bad the real world doesn't offer the same consolations. And it's the real world you see in Nina Berman's tender but unflinching photographs of Ty Ziegel, a former Marine sergeant so badly disfigured by a suicide-bomb attack in Iraq that back home small children stare at him, even after 50 reconstructive surgeries. It would be obscene to aestheticize his situation, and Berman doesn't aim to. What she does is present it forthrightly, with compassion but without pathos bravely, which is how he presents himself. We have to read a lot into Ziegel because his face sometimes seems to have a limited range of expression. Gently but firmly, Berman directs you to see the man behind the mask. Do these pictures belong in an art museum? Of course they do, because as long as one of the things art does is use images to teach, this is art.
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