The incredible stairs to nowhere


General Photography

This past weekend, I looked quickly through the latest photography project commissioned by the New York Times, photographs of abandoned houses etc., done by Edgar Martins. Since the photography did not strike me as particularly interesting, I didn’t spend much time with it, but I remember I was a bit puzzled about the stairs in this photograph.

Updated below (thrice)

By now, you have probably seen Rob’s post plus this post over at PDN, which shows a whole bunch of very obvious - and very amateurishly done - digital manipulations. The Times has since pulled the photos from its website, curtly stating that “questions were raised about whether they [the photographs] had been digitally altered.” (gotta love the passive!)

Given the story had already been made public by Rob and PDN, I decided to email Martins to ask him about his work. At the time of this writing (several hours later), I haven’t heard back. PDN notes they emailed him and tried to get in touch with the Times magazine’s photography director, both with the same result.

In the absence of any response from the parties in question, right now we can only ask obvious questions: Why these manipulations? And why done so badly? Why/how did they pass the editorial process at the Times magazine?

Of course, the fact that these photos were published in the Times magazine makes things particularly interesting. Martins is a fine-art photographer, but the photographs were clearly used in a documentary context. In such a context, such manipulations are not acceptable, especially given the Times’ guidelines.

It seems that Martins also stated that “When I photograph I don’t do any post production to the images, either in the darkroom or digitally, because it erodes the process. So I respect the essence of these spaces.” in an interview found here. This is a most curious statement, since you rarely meet a photographer who does no “post production” whatsoever. None? No dodging or burning, nothing? How does that work? Are these photos Polaroids?

I reviewed Martins’ Topologies book last year. I quite liked the book, and I still do. I never actually thought/believed that the photographs in the book were done using no post production - after all, post production is what photographers do; and in a fine-art context modifying your work (let me use the word “modify” to phrase it in a neutral way) is a very accepted practice. If one were to follow the Times’ “ethics guidelines” large parts of fine-art photography would consist of what they call “photo-illustrations”.

For many photographers, modifying their work is an essential part of the process (of course, it always has been, since even in the darkroom you can very generously modify your work, but that has been noted many times before). Of course, there are two types of modifications, namely the dodging and burning and cropping and changing the contrast etc. (this is one applies very easily to darkrooms and Photoshop); and then there’s the copying and cloning and repeating - for the most part something the digital age has brought us (exceptions prove the rule). If one wants to talk about modifying/manipulating photography I think one would want to separate these two.

But still, despite the fact that I didn’t care too much for the work published in the Times magazine in the first place, the way this all has played out so far has me very disappointed. I have the feeling that this whole episode has been somewhat detrimental for fine-art photography in general, especially because of the way things are being handled by both the Times and Martins, and because of what Martins stated about his work before.

Update: An interesting comment by Robert Wright. Meanwhile, the Times published the following “editors’ note”, the most relevant part of which reads: “The introduction said that the photographer, a freelancer based in Bedford, England, ‘creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation.’ A reader, however, discovered on close examination that one of the pictures was digitally altered, apparently for aesthetic reasons. Editors later confronted the photographer and determined that most of the images did not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show. Had the editors known that the photographs had been digitally manipulated, they would not have published the picture essay, which has been removed from” Which doesn’t answer the questions I posed above.

Update: Major political blog Talking Points Memo picks up the story.

Update: It says Behind the Scenes: Digital Manipulation, but the article from the Times’ “Lens” blog simply describes what you have already seen on, for example, Rob’s blog.