“Images are not a representation of reality”

Last Sunday the NY Times mag ran a photo feature on abandoned, half-built real estate projects — casualties of the big bust. The pictures were stunningly otherwordly — eerily lit, human-free canvases of financial devastation. Dayna, my wife, handed me the magazine and asked, “Are these computer generated?” They had, she added, an uncanny-valleyish feel.

The feature noted that photographer Edgar Martins “creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation.” Now it turns out the Times has removed the photos from its website and posted an embarrassing editor’s note admitting that the photos had been “digitally manipulated: “Most of the images,” the editors wanly declare, “did not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show.” It seems that, in some sort of misguided effort to create more pleasing images, Martins duplicated and then flipped portions of some photos to create a barely perceptible mirror image: a sort of fearful — but now, we know, bogus — symmetry.

As I read up on the controversy (here’s the original conversation on Metafilter that exposed the matter, here’s Simon Owens’ account of how that happened, and here’s some photographic detail) I had two thoughts: One, sounds like this photographer didn’t come clean to his editors, and that’s unprofessional and probably unforgivable. But, two: the images did not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show? Huh? Does any image? Can any image? Or article, or representation of any sort?

Before I get any more Borgesian on you, let me point you back to the interviews I did with the photographer and multimedia artist Pedro Meyer back in the early 90s — one from the San Francisco Examiner, and one from Wired. (Please note that the Wired piece got mangled somewhere between the magazine and the Web; the intro paragraph appears at the end.)

This, from the Examiner piece:

Pedro Meyer points to one of his photographs and says, “Tell me what’s been altered in this picture.”

The photo shows a huge wooden chair on a pedestal – a Brobdingnagian seat that looms over the buildings in the background with the displaced mystery of an Easter Island sculpture.

It’s difficult to say what’s going on here: A trompe l’oeil perspective trick? Or the product of digital special effects?

Meyer is a serious artist and philosopher of technology, but today he’s playing a little game of “what’s wrong with this picture?”… The truth about the chair photo is that it’s a “straight” image: It’s just a really big chair.

Meyer says he took the shot outside an old furniture factory in Washington, D.C. But the self-evidently transformed pictures that surround it in his exhibit – like that of a pint-sized old woman on a checkerboard table carrying a torch toward an angelic girl many times her size – call its accuracy into question. We stare and distrust our eyes.

So is Pedro Meyer, who started out as a traditional documentary photographer, out to subvert our faith in the photographic image, our notion that “pictures never lie”? You better believe it.

“I think it’s very important for people to realize that images are not a representation of reality,” Meyer says. “The sooner that myth is destroyed and buried, the better for society all around.”

[You can see that chair photo in the “Truths and Fictions” gallery available off this page — click through to screen 26.]

And this, from the Wired interview:

I’m not suggesting that a photograph cannot be trustworthy. But it isn’t trustworthy simply because it’s a picture. It is trustworthy if someone we trust made it.

You’re interviewing me right now, you’re taking notes and taping the conversation, and at the end you will sit down and edit. You won’t be able to put in everything we talked about: you’ll highlight some things over others. Somebody reading your piece in a critical sense will understand that your value judgments shape it. That’s perfectly legitimate. Turn it around: let me take a portrait of you, and suddenly people say, That’s the way he was.

We don’t trust words because they’re words, but we trust pictures because they’re pictures. That’s crazy. It’s our responsibility to investigate the truth, to approach images with care and caution.

After learning what Meyer was trying to teach me, I can’t get too huffy about Martins’ work. There is no sharp easy line between photos that are “manipulated” and those that aren’t; there is a spectrum of practice, and when a photo is cropped or artificially lit or color-adjusted or sharpened or filtered in any way it is already being manipulated, even if Photoshop is never employed. Martins’ pictures are beautiful and arresting, and if he’d simply told the world what he was up to, I don’t think anyone would be too upset.

Of course, if Martins had been forthright the Times would probably not have printed his work, because it has an institutional commitment to, I guess, attempt to “wholly reflect” reality. Somehow.

I don’t demand that of photographers or journalists or newspapers. I just ask them to tell me what they’re up to. As David Weinberger put it at the Personal Democracy Forum: “Transparency is the new objectivity.”

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  1. bb

    Scott — I think in some basic sense you’re missing the point of the scandal here by focusing only on what the Times said about “not representing relaity.” Read through the whole thread on Metafilter, and most people there are not really upset about the fact that the photos were manipulated (all photos are processed in some way after all, and you are correct in saying that images don’t really represent “reality” anyway).

    The uproar is not about what the images are, but is about the chasm between what they are and what the photographer said they were. Seems like the photographer has made a whole career marketing his photos to the Art world as unmanipulated images “respecting the essence of spaces” with no digital postprocessing, when in fact he has been keeping himself quite busy attempting to master the Mirror feature and Clone Stamp tool in Photoshop. In other words, it’s the hypocrisy that’s pissing people off, not the fact that the photos were (quite obviously) Photoshopped. After all, the geeks on Metafilter seem to know Photoshop inside and out. Why would they, of all people, be mad about manipulated images? Geeks get mad at hypocrisy and pretension though, so they are having a field day with this one.

  2. Scott Rosenberg

    Hey, bb — I agree with you. I said the problem was that the photographer didn’t come clean, and that was “unprofessional and probably unforgivable.” Seems to me there’s no argument about that. Then I moved on to consider the other issues because there *is* some disagreement or at least confusion about them — as indicated by the Times’ note, with its notion that it’s possible for a photo to “wholly represent reality.” The geeks on Metafilter may not be confused about that, but the rest of the world seems to still have a way to go…

  3. bb

    Hey, Scott — thanks for the response. I see what you are driving at. Sorry if my initial response misrepresented your view a bit, but I actually think that maybe more contrast in your article between “this is what the Times is upset about” (i.e. not representing reality) vs. “this is what we should REALLY be upset about” (unprofessional hypocrite photographers passing off their work as pure and untouched by the stain of digital manipulation) might have clarified the matter for me at least. (Love this blog, btw. Always thought-provoking! Look forward to reading your book — it’s on my list of summer reading.)

  4. Great post, Scott. It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago when I was a staff writer at National Geographic magazine.

    Photographer says to me: “Alan, if 10 people look at my photographs and draw 10 different conclusions, I feel as though I’ve done my job.”

    I replied: “Well, if 10 people read the caption I write for your picture and react the same way, I’m in deep trouble — especially with my editor, who will send the copy back to me with ‘WTF?’ scrawled across the top.” …

    Photographs are often ambiguous. Without someone to spell out exactly what you’re seeing, images are Rorschach blots (10 people, 10 stories). I wonder if that makes the jump to Photoshop that much easier.

    Pedro Meyer says: “We trust pictures because they’re pictures. That’s crazy.” It *is* crazy. It also may be why the whole “graven image” prohibition ranks #2 on the big Top Ten List. http://tr.im/rzh7

  5. Scott, I like Clyde Mueller, member and Poynter Liaison for the NPPA ethics committee and a past president of the National Press Photographers Association, standard or test for what should be labeled a departure from normal news photography. Maybe you will find it helpful in this discussion.

    I wrote the following in a StinkyJournalism blog post, 5/29/09 “In the world of many opinions and fights on the subject of what is ethical practice in news photo alterations, Mueller’s rule of thumb–call it Mueller’s Law– is a good news photography standard that StinkyJournalism can live by…He asks a question: Does the photographic technique mirror the function of human eye? If it doesn’t, then at least label it ‘illustration’ or disclose it in a caption for lack of a better alternative.”


  6. Scott:

    It’s certainly true that nothing–not photos, not words, not pixels, not anything–can wholly reflect reality (to use the Times’ strained phrase), much as Borges said his words could never achieve the clarity and simultaneity of the Aleph.

    Still, aren’t you nagged by something here? The fact that, as Pedro Meyer rightly emphasized to you, all writing and photography (and most other attempts at communication) involve distortion doesn’t mean that we have to go out of our way to distort things.

    I’m a writer not a photographer. I certainly sculpt what I write–through style, wording, emphasis, shadings of character, the quotes that I use, etc. But I don’t add people, or shove in props, or lard on strange symmetries that accord with my aesthetic but weren’t there when I was doing my reporting.

    That would be making things up–and it strikes me as the verbal version of the kind of digital manipulation Martins engaged in here.

    Rob Neuwirth

  7. Scott Rosenberg

    As a writer I’m with you, Rob: I don’t put words in people’s mouths and I struggle to represent what I see faithfully. But any trust I’ve earned is based on my record, not on the fact that I “write words.” Meyer reminds us that the same holds true for those who “take pictures.” We forget that, easily, I think.

    So I’m a traditionalist, but I will also accept the *possibility* that a talented observer — writer or photographer — might choose to “go out of the way to distort things” in order to deliver a more faithful portrait of what he or she had seen. My rule about that is: if you’re doing that and you want me to keep trusting you, you’d better tell me what you’re doing.

    I guess what I’m nagged about is what I criticized: the lack of disclosure. If Martins felt that the best way to represent the reality he observed was to doctor the images a certain way, I’m willing to consider that (though reasonably skeptical). Let him tell us what he did and make the argument for it and let us judge. We similarly accept the work of New Journalists who, we understand, may not be offering verbatim transcripts of reality. What’s important is that we know the terms of engagement.

  8. Scott, zee my blog on this KEvin Kelly and Alex beam agree with me: what we do online is not reading, it is SCREENING, agree. disagree? blog on my idea, pro or con?

    Danny Bloom
    Tufts 1971 in …Taiwan

  9. Scott, see my blog on this….reading on paper vs screening on screens….. KEvin Kelly and Alex beam agree with me:

    what we do online is not reading, it is SCREENING, agree. disagree? blog on my idea, pro or con?

    Danny Bloom
    Tufts 1971 in …Taiwan

  10. bowerbird

    > if he’d simply told the world
    > what he was up to,
    > I don’t think anyone
    > would be too upset.

    but then the n.y. times wouldn’t have
    published his work within that gallery,
    since their focus was on photography,
    and specifically not photo-illustration.
    (because photo-illustration can make
    _any_ point, even one known to be false.)

    but even further…

    it wasn’t the fact that he didn’t “tell us”
    what he was doing… not at all… it was
    the fact that he said point blank he was
    _not_ doing something which he _was_
    indeed doing. so it wasn’t an error of
    omission, but an error of commission.


  11. MEL

    “Someone once told Picasso that he ought to make pictures of things the way they are – objective pictures. When Picasso said he did not understand, the man produced a picture of his wife from his wallet and said, ‘There, you see, that’s a picture of how she really is.’ Picasso looked at it and said, ‘She’s rather small, isn’t she? And flat?'”


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