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.”
- 8 July, 2009 @ 23:41 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- 8 July, 2009 @ 23:40 by Scott Rosenberg