By Glenn McNatt

Sun Art Critic

Originally published December 10, 2006

What makes a photograph art rather than just a picture of something that happened?

The show is sponsored by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which has 
underwritten a series of traveling exhibitions that use photography to explore 
issues of social justice. 

Each of the large, color portraits is accompanied by text that identifies the 
soldier, describes how he or she was wounded and notes where and when the 
photograph was taken. The exhibition also presents text panels recording the 
reactions of UMBC students, ranging from pity, horror and shock to outrage. 

One photograph depicts Cpl. Tyson Johnson III, 22, wounded in a 2003 mortar 
attack on Abu Ghraib prison during which he suffered massive internal injuries. 
Berman photographed Johnson in bed a year later at his home in Prichard, Ala. 
His thin body is scored with ragged surgical scars. In Berman's portrait, he 
seems too weak even to lift his head off the pillow, and the darkness of the 
room, broken only by thin strips of sunlight filtering through window blinds, 
suggests a nightmarish netherworld from which no escape is possible. 

Another image depicts Spc. Adam Zaremba, 20, of the 1st Armored Division, who 
was wounded in Baghdad in 2003 when a mine blew off his leg and riddled his body 
with shrapnel. The photograph shows Zaremba at Fort Riley, Kan., a year after 
his return. He is shown in uniform from the waist up, and his wounds are not 
visible in the picture. If one did not know what had happened to him, he might 
appear the conquering hero. 

"I joined [the Army] in high school," Zaremba told Berman. "The recruiter 
called the house. He was actually looking for my brother and happened to get me. 
I think it was because I didn't want to do homework and then, I don't know, you 
get to wear a cool uniform. It just went on from there. I still don't even 
understand a lot about the Army."

Berman photographed Zaremba on the base in front of a romantic mural 
depicting the Old West. The tension in the picture arises from the disconnect 
between this oversized image of past American heroism and the mundane reality of 
Zaremba's more recent sacrifice

In her statement, Berman, a New York freelance photographer, says she chose 
to photograph wounded American soldiers at home rather than on the battlefield 
because she wanted to explore the human costs of war on an intimate, domestic 
scale. Her photographs question the rosy assumption that high-tech warfare can 
be carried out quickly and at relatively little cost in blood. Her project is a 
catalog of disfigurements, amputations, blindness and mental disorders that 
leave no doubt that war remains an extremely messy business.

"What raises [Berman's] images to the level of art is how she approaches her 
subjects and the mastery with which she conveys some intimate aspect of their 
being," says A.M. Weaver, a Philadelphia- based independent curator and art 
consultant. "It's a matter of her compositions, her sensitivity in deciding how 
to depict her subjects, and her skill in conveying their psychological condition 
through purely photographic means." 

Weaver's comment suggests there's no single factor determining whether a 
photograph is art. In fact, the definition of art as applied to photography is 
in a continual state of flux that depends on the photographer's intent, the 
context in which the image appears and the uses to which it is put. 

In keeping with the Open Society Institute's primary purpose of promoting 
dialogue on social justice issues, the UMBC exhibition isn't hung in one of the 
school's formal gallery spaces, but in the Commons building where students are 
most likely to see it. 

Whether you choose to view these images as art depends entirely on the 
attitudes and expectations you bring to the encounter. Yet if one purpose of art 
is to provoke contemplation, then Berman's emotionally wrenching images of men 
and women marked by war surely qualify.

Moving Walls 10: Purple Hearts runs through Jan. 19 in the Commons Mezzanine Gallery at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle in Catonsville. Call 410-455-5619.

Photo(s); Caption: Spc. Adam Zaremba was photographed with an Old West mural.; Credit: Nina Berman
Credit: Sun Art Critic