Another Digital Manipulation Controversy
Left, the “original”; right, the “altered” as it appeared in print.
Since my weekend NYT subscription is on hold, I missed this brouhaha at the Times Magazine over a series of digitally altered photographs. The photographer in question, Edgar Martins, presented his photos for a story called “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age” as actual documentary, unretouched images to his editors. The story ran on July 5th, then the pixel peepers started deconstructing the images, pointing out perfect symmetries and cloned pipes and staircases that went to nowhere. The Times retracted the story, apologized to readers, and banished Martins from practicing journalism at its paper. On July 31st, since the controversy ignited a great debate in imaging circles, Martins was generously invited to defend himself on Lens, the Times’ photography blog. Not much of what he says elucidates anything about why he did what he did, nor does he seem to understand the contract with viewers of documentary photography. The problem stems from Martins being an artist rather than a journalist, however much he seems to lie that his photographs are an actual depiction of reality. He is clearly more interested in aesthetics and theory than in pure documentation, something which I tend to share. The Times photography manipulation policy is very general:
Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).
It does not take into account selective sharpening, blurring, color balancing, dodging and burning, high dynamic range photography, and the dozens of other techniques, aside from cloning and montaging, which photographers use to enhance their images everyday. I’m sure we will be revisiting this issue many more times as technology matures. Very soon digital still and movie cameras will be able to montage and manipulate on the fly, further blurring the definitions of reality and beauty.