Wednesday, July 8, 2009

NY Times Removes Airbrushed Photos of Half Built Homes

I am a fan of the urban planning website Planetizen. I like the mix of articles about building projects, transportation issues, sprawl, and land use issues from around the world. This one caught my eye:

This slide show from The New York Times Magazine takes a look at the abandoned and stalled buildings form around the country that epitomize the bust of the building market.

Photographer Edgar Martins toured throughout the U.S. to document these sites, which range from the typical Sun Belt subdivision to Connecticut McMansions to a mega casino project in Las Vegas.

"The abandoned or stalled developments -- and Matins's photos of them -- can be seen as signs of the hubris (and occasional criminality) that typified the boom and the economic and human damage that remained in its wake."

I am not sure if this was an online only thing or if these photos were in the real NY Times Magazine. So I went to the link and there is no slide show- only this "Editors' Note: July 7, 2009 The pictures in this feature were removed after questions were raised about whether they had been digitally altered." This seems odd and a big deal for the NY Times to publish photos and then take them down. Here is a news story about this but it doesn't say much more.

There is a meta filter page where people discuss whether the photos were altered. The folks there carefully examined the photos and noted that some of the photos looked like the artist split photos and created a mirror image side-by-side to create a certain symmetrical look of a building. Of the 49 on the website, I can only see a couple where this would have even been possible.

This is not a photo of some complicated current news story like a violent protest or murder scene where it is somewhat like a false story to have an altered photo.

You CAN still see the photos at the photographer's website. Go to Photography and then Ruins of the Gilded Age and then go to the PHOTOS button and you can see 49 excellent photos.

They are great and almost all of these do not seem altered in any signficant way and even the 2 or 3 that may be do not make the story any less honest. These are art photographs so if he took one of a home and did some changes to it to make it look a bit more foggy or grey, took out a truck, that is fine. It is one artists impression of a problem. Even the ones with the possible mirror change, maybe the other side had some flaw that looked odd and the mirror one probably looks very similar to the original. He took real photos and selected them and presented them in a way to make an impression. It is not like he took a photo of a nice home and put fake bullet holes in the side. It is like a painter who walks around looking and homeless people and then paints a picture of a homeless person that is not exactly like the people he saw and then it is put on the cover of a magazine.

There is not a fine line between real photos and altered photos. All published photos go through some touch ups or changes.

Who would even care about this? Initially I thought that a developer or owner of one of these projects did not want his project to look empty or abandoned and asked the NY Times to take them down but now it seems that some photos sleuths caught a couple of fishy looking photos and the NY Times editors found out about it.

Bad call, these are great photos which capture an important piece of our economic meltdown around the country. NY Times, put them back up.

EXTRA: this PDN webpage has more evidence of the altercations of a few photos. While I guess they caught him I still don't think it really matters. Most of these altercations seem so minor they do not detract from the subject. Two of these photoshop changes are pieces of the foreground or background or blurry areas that are not really part of what you are looking at. Maybe there was something that looked funny and detracted from the subject that they wanted removed.


Anonymous said...

froggyprager, I've looked at the pics in that album at the photographer's website which you linked to. Looking at just pics 1 to 6, #1 and #6 are clearly digitally altered. That's all I need to see, and that whole photo essay is trash. Pics #1 and #6 are so obviously altered it is insulting. Further examination of pic 2-5 might show smaller alterations, especially if I could view larger sizes. No matter. They're not merely "altered", they're FAKE.

That "photographer" needs to be banned from the profession. He is surely banned from the New York Times forever.

That photo essay is a fraud. Case closed.

It IS important, this photographer committed fraud, for money, and to deceive millions of people. And he did it so badly, so insultingly, he should be banned just for that.

Bob Collins said...

Who would care about it? the New York Times. They have guidelines for ethical conduct of people in their employ or contract and this photographer violated it.

Why does it matter? Because you should be able to trust that what you see or read in a newspaper is what IS.

"It's all the NEWS that's fit to print" not all the ART.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other comments.

The news industry as a whole already sensationalizes way too often, often substantially distorting reality in an effort to provoke reactions from the audience.

This kind of behavior is acceptable in art. Art deals in archetypes, symbols, fantasy, the extraordinary, and our deepest emotions, and we all know before viewing/hearing/etc a piece of art that what we see or hear is designed to provoke reactions. It is fiction.

News, contrastingly, is specifically about conveying information to us. It is about furthering our understanding of reality by presenting facts which are contemporary/current and also somewhat relevant to our life experience. We expect these facts to be accurate, and we are told by the news providers that they will be.

These images being presented as art (on the artist's website and/or in a gallery) would be fine. But to provide them to a news site and to specifically claim they are unaltered is inethical, and it is right that the NY Times removed them.

Jake said...

The NY Times got it right. These are documentary photographs, and by creating scenes in his computer, Mr. Martin has created a fiction and presented it as fact.

Fine as art, unacceptable as journalism.

Logic? said...

froggyprager, you could not be more wrong. Did you bother to read the NY Times editorial note? Or the lead-in narrative to the photo essay? Apparently not. The editorial note, which you even refer to in your post, states: "the photographer, a freelancer based in Bedford, England, 'creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation.' "

Doesn't that tell you all you need to know? He lied. The Times can't leave those fraudulent photographs up.

And certainly you should know that photographs printed in a news magazine are not art unless they are depicted as such. They are news, and therefore are supposed to represent reality. Touching up a news photograph by sharpening it, cropping it, etc., is fine as long as it does not fundamentally change the content that is represented as reality. In this case, the photos are not art; they are fraudulent.

froggyprager said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
froggyprager said...

Thank you for reading and your comments. After reading more about this story I still stand by my point. They should of course not included the note that said “With artful composition and controlled framing—but no digital manipulation—Edgar Martins creates sublimely beautiful views of often un-beautiful sites" but I am not sure whether that was put in by the editors at the paper or written by the photographer, whether there was some sort of misunderstanding regarding the assignment and the appropriate techniques that were used and should have been used.

This is not a typical photo journalism assignment because they hired a known art photographer (referred to on cover of a photo magazine as “one of the worlds most sought after art photographers”) and not a photojournalist and they were included in the glossy magazine without an article and not in the newspaper. Does anyone know if the 6 that were printed in the magazine are the same that were posted online in the slide show? If you have not looked at the whole 49 photos you should and see what you think of the overall effort.

While almost everyone on the PDN website disagrees with me, I like the comments from Stephen Rowe and Sam Pratt who articulate my thoughts better than I could. I think the hard line that many draw here between a lie and the truth, fact and fiction, honesty and fraud is not that black and white. Lighten up people. Any photo, video, or print story is a person’s impression and includes bias and perspective from that person. What is reality and what is a fantasy? Would it have been more honest if he walked in the house and picked up the can of paint and took it out of the frame?

Also, I still think that the identified alterations really do not seem signficant and do not detract from the subject with the possible exception of the mirror image of the framed house interior. While it is possible that the other half of that home includes something like workmen or a finished wall which would make this picture significantly distorted from reality, but I guess the other half has similar framing and the published photo with the mirror flip does not really depreciate the impression you may get by looking at this house. Do these alterations make the subjects look better or worse than they really are? They are thought provoking and illicit emotions of the viewer and that is the point isn’t it?

Logic? said...

"This is not a typical photo journalism assignment because they hired a known art photographer (referred to on cover of a photo magazine as “one of the worlds most sought after art photographers”) and not a photojournalist and they were included in the glossy magazine without an article and not in the newspaper."

Again, your logic is flawed. You are looking at this the wrong way. It WAS a typical photojournalism assignment and Times made the mistake of hiring an art photographer to do the assignment. If it were intended as an art project, then the Times should have advertised it as such. But they didn't. In fact, they even went so far as to state the photos had not been digitally manipulated. Times readers should expect that all published photographs are accurate representations of reality, whether they appear in the newspaper or the "glossy magazine". Of course the magazine has more editorial leeway, but whenever it uses that leeway it should be clear about what it is doing.

Where the blame lies – with the Times, the photographer, a misunderstanding – I don't know. What I do know is that the photo essay was an inaccurate representation of the housing crisis which the essay professed to represent, it may or may not have been unethical depending on exactly how this transpired, and the photos should not remain posted as part of this particular essay.