July 10, 2009 by cynthia
I’ve got this huge post on the garage remodel just about ready to go but there’s one more thing to build and one more piece of news I want to mention: The New York Times just pulled a batch of photos from its Sunday magazine upon discovering that they’d been (gasp!) photoshopped.
Apparently the old grey lady hired noted photographer Edgar Martins to do a photo essay on the real estate bust. They published it with the proud proclamation that Martins “creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation.“
Never make statements like that unless you’re absolutely, 100 percent sure they’re true, because some technogeek is bound to call you on it.
Sure enough, Minnesotan Adam Gurno (handle: unixrat) noticed a bit too much symmetry in the admittedly gorgeous images, took a closer look, and found mirroring, rubber-stamping and other problems. Unless the builder of the abandoned home managed to duplicate the wood grain in the studs on the left and right sides of the house or the wind carefully arranged the leaves in mirror-images, this was fairly crude photoshopping. The photographer took the cool-looking side of at least two of his photos, copied and flipped them.
Gurno blogged about it, sent his proof to the Old Grey Lady, and embarrassed the heck out of her. Times editors pulled the photos, apologized, and Martins isn’t taking calls. (There’s an amusing and informative discussion of the essay and its photoshoppery on Metafilter, well worth reading)
Now, I’m on record, many times, as strongly opposing the manipulation of images used for documentary (i.e., photojournalistic) purposes (and in fact I once helped fire a guy for that). My first impulse, though, was to say “Oh, for goodness sake, guys–it’s SUPPOSED to be artistic. It’s a photoessay on magnificence gone awry,” and declare this vast overkill.
Then I saw what had been done, the extent of the manipulation. Martins wasn’t just cleaning the dirt off a window or deepening a shadow to increase the impact. He hand-built a whole new image that didn’t exist at all in real life. Bad. Bad. Bad.
Too blatant. Too obvious (and, frankly, too amateurish–what the heck was he thinking?) to ignore.
So the test for badness is whether or not your manipulation materially alters the story you’re telling with the photos, i.e., you create a lie to prove your point. And the point in this case is that a plummeting real estate market forced builders to abandon expensive home construction projects.
Yet the manipulation didn’t change that fact–these homes are still abandoned, they’re just more symmetrical, probably a lot more dramatic as a result of the manipulation. You could probably argue that the symmetry increases the grandiose, how-the-mighty-have-fallen irony of the images…but is that lying or simply dramatic license?
The real problem seems to be that the Times is on record as saying these are unretouched and so is extra-special embarrassed about it. And these are the guys who’ve been caught out by faked stories fairly frequently, so I’d imagine they’re even more sensitive to stuff like this.
Yet…logically, the changes were lies but didn’t create a lie, an important distinction. I ought to be following my first impulse, and calling this overkill.
Emotionally, I’m with the Times–I’m bugged as hell. Maybe I need to think about this some more…