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Wednesday, 08 July 2009


What strikes me most is the fact that the staircases in the middle lead to nowhere.

Really quite difficult to see why he bothered.

I've been watching the current chatter and debate regarding Excessive Photoshopping with keen interest. I find it fascinating in that it focuses my views as they pertain to art, journalism, truth, etc.

I'm given to remember a story I heard about some folks who laid a large canvas down on the floor, then staged buckets of paint and a tricycle on top of it. Then they had a chimp come in and play. The resultant "painting" was then submitted for critical art review, and received a warm reception. Of course when the critics found out who made the painting and how, they retracted their praise.

I think that story is interesting for several reasons. Art is expected to be a deliberate act of creation rather than simply a random process resulting in something someone would call art. It comes down to intent. In my humble opinion, the painting from the story is art. Why you ask? Because while the work was done by a chimp, it was staged by human beings with a very deliberate goal. As art, the entire situation was witty, provocative, and explicit.

As a hobbyist photographer, I know the difference between something that happens to come out well and something that comes out as I intended it to. I also know that I can take poor photos I've made, stick them in Photoshop, play with layers, masks, adjustments, and filters, and eventually come up with something I like. But I don't call that art.

Having said all that, I think that "art" has no boundaries. The truth in art is not in accurate colors or tone maps, etc. So make a white chair into a yellow chair. Fill a blown-out sky with clouds from another photo. It doesn't matter as long as the process is deliberate and seeks to bring the artist's vision to fruition.

Journalistic truth is another matter. Journalism, by definition, requires exacting accuracy. So mirroring an image of a house is a lie. Making a white chair into a yellow chair is a lie. Don't believe me? Try this. Translate the offending picture into words and you'll get it. If I had photographed the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and decided to Photoshop the photograph so that the tank was flat black to make it more powerful, the picture has now crossed the line and can no longer be considered photojournalism. Put into words, "The lone citizen faced a green camouflaged tank." (an accurate representation) vs. "The lone citizen faced a black tank." (an outright lie).

You might say that by that criteria, a black and white photograph would've been a lie as well. I would disagree because black and white photographs are by their nature accurate in doing what they do - capturing shades of gray, contrast, etc. So to make another analogy, a b&w photo of an Elephant edited to make the elephant pure white would be a lie. But the fact that b&w portrays all colors as black, white, or shades of gray is an inherent quality of the media.

Obviously there's a fine line here. Many people will have differing views as to where the line is for any given situation, but there is a line.

I've had to work hard at my trade and profession (press photographer), although I prefer to think of it as a vocation. It saddening to see this kind of short cut, taken by the photographer, or whomever edited his pictures. It diminishes the whole trade. But then I'm not a big fan of HDR photos either.... Not that Landscape photography is journalism, but the lines are getting blurred all over the place.

Funnily, it seemed to me a little HDR was going on in this picture too, but what do I know.

I know less and less each year, I'm sure about that at least. I know of fellow photographers who have used Photoshop tools to improve pictures. Sadly for them, the whispers follow them. I guess they are so wrapped up in their egos they don't actually see how they diminish the whole trade and themselves amongst their peers and the public. That is, until they are really caught out with something really blatant. It's a bit like sportmen and women being caught out doping themselves.

I'm sure the art world finds all this funny.


Several years ago, a reporter for the NY Times, who filed a number of stories from diverse locations, and conducted interviews with a number of people in those locations, was found to have made up the stories from his bedroom. Many stories over a couple of years. He was fired and the integrity of the NYT came into question.

In response, the paper significantly changed their processes for fact checking, instituted a "public editor" -- and ombudsman for readers -- and has taken actions similar to this on a number of occasions, when work was found to be dubious, or incorrect, or other. Page 2 of each print edition carries corrections and clarifications.

Too bad that somebody tried to get away with something. Good that he was caught and the offending materials removed.

Dear Mike,

I found the general tone of the argument to be very interesting. There is a basic technical level to the visual language of photography that we practitioners take for granted (because it is so basic to the craft) that is unknown to the lay audience.

Any of us would simply look at the rendering of perspective on both sides and ignore the question of meticulous fine detail. I suppose I can imagine, in theory, achieving that degree of symmetry in camera (assuming the original subject really was symmetric), but it would require a tethered computer and a huge amount of work to get all five axes of the camera perfect. I'm not sure I could achieve it in practice; even in this "small" image, you'd be talking about positioning to less than an inch and swing and tilt to less than a degree to get pixel-perfect alignment.

Obvious to all of us, definitely not obvious to all of them.

Something to remember when we're surprised at how easily faked images are accepted by the general viewing audience.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Damn, that's too bad - I was really impressed by that essay.

With this sort of thing going on who would want to be a photo editor? If I was the editor I'd demand all compensation, including expenses (he did travel a lot) refunded and the undoctored versions of all the photographs used in the magazine submitted for posting on line alongside the altered versions.

PS that's a great headline Mike.

The PDNPulse article on this (http://www.pdnpulse.com/2009/07/new-york-times-magazine-withdraws-possibly-altered-photo-essay.html) has good illustrations of some of the large-scale cloning used in these images.

Commenters at Metafilter have also gone through the guy's past work and seen the obvious signatures of extensive photoshopping there as well, despite the repeated claims of 'no digital or darkroom manipulation'.

The Blue has always been an interesting place, even if the S/N ratio varies a little.

And I was gushing over those shots just a couple of days ago (though one was over tone-mapped....)

so maybe I am obtuse, what's the point, that he manipulated and image digitally when he claims not to do so, or that the house wasn't what it was reported to be. Hardly a controversy to me...

You can't fool the interweb.

It took me a moment to understand what the animated gif was trying to convey.

It's the very fact that the "raw flip" was so absolutely perfect, compared to the "original"---save 10-15 details, which suggests that the photographer made a mirror image and then digitally altered it on one side in 10-15 places.

I get it!

p.s. Got a link to the "discussion at metafilter"?

One more thing. In my opinion, the New York Times totally hung themselves by saying that the photographer "creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation." They're at fault, not the photographer. I don't mean to start a flame war on what does or does not constitute "digital manipulation", but if you take pictures with a DIGITAL camera, what photographer out there never opens up their resulting images in Gimp or Photoshop? Digital photography = digital manipulation.

It would be tantamount to arguing that Ansel Adams never manipulated his photos like Edgar Martins, and then later learning he dodged and burned with the best of them.

Haven't we learned from Errol Morris that all photography is manipulation?

Ah, but the real question is, with the photographer now a famous bad boy, will my copy of "Topologies" rocket in value? :-)

Most of the time, it's immediately obvious why somebody manipulates photos. This one, I don't get. They're construction sites, what's the big deal with just showing them as they were?


Checkout the updated note on nytimes.com site: they do acknowledge now that the images were retouched.

Fact-checking (calling out bullshit) is a good thing--wherever it comes from. Sadly, it doesn't come from the mainstream media often enough anymore. Blogs (and aware citizens) fill an important need when truth is the goal. Sadly, again, truth isn't very often the goal.

Elmo Sandpiper - The point is that these pictures were presented in a journalistic content, and they were faked. Lying in the pictures is no more acceptable than lying in the text of an article. You can't just make things up.

Justin - While there is grey area in any digital photography, there are very clear points where a line has been crossed. The fact that some manipulation (if you define raw processing or opening in Photoshop that way) may be necessary simply to produce the images does not mean that all manipulation is equivalent.

And certainly, as I stated above, these changes go beyond what's acceptable for journalistic images. There's no grey area there.

Enough of naughty photographers, already! What about a black-page day to mourn/commemorate the week's Big news - the final demise of Franke & Heidecke?

I subscribe to the Sunday NY Times and therefore saw the original article. When I read the part about "without digital manipulation" I thought to myself "Hmm, that's odd. I wonder why they felt obliged to allay any suspicions of digital manipulation." I even thought they might have been implying that Martins used a view camera. Now we discover he was altering scenes where it not only wasn't worth the effort, but also detrimental to his business relationship with the NY Times. I guess that's what happens when you get too used to "improving" reality.

The question of how much manipulation is unacceptable for honest photojournalism predates digital. It's not well defined.

But here's a partial attempt: Anything that isn't done uniformly to the entire image is over the line. For example, it's OK to change the contrast of the whole image to bring out clouds, but not do to that same operation to just the top third of the image. This rule covers any sort of removal of blood, insertion of people, clearing up of background (the famous Kent State shooting picture), and mirroring.

This guideline, of course, does not apply to photography that's not journalism. It certainly doesn't apply to photographing one's spouse and then sitting down with a copy of the book Skin to make some fixes.

Now the question is reduced to which sorts of manipulations of the image as a whole are over the line, but I think that's an easier question to work on.


I'm with JC on this one. I simply cannot imagine why would anyone feel the need to make this kind of manipulation.

Because no-one ever did anything like this in the darkroom. Oh no. That would have been unthinkable.

More seriously, the funny thing is that these manipulations don't really change the meaning of the pictures. It's not like shopping in more smoke on a burning city, or an extra missile in a test, or a crowd where there was a small gathering. The changes are mostly aesthetic. Perfect symmetry becomes a bit of a dull aesthetic after the first two, but still.

They're also not so well done. The photo editor who accepted these must be under horrible pressure to miss such obvious edits.

I believe that Martins also claims that his most famous work, that in the book 'Typologies', does not contain any digital manipulation. (Not entirely sure why he felt the need to broadcast that, since that work is of the 'fine art' variety and not journalism). I took his word on that, but was always a bit skeptical -- the images in that book sure LOOKED like they received some serious post-exposure doctoring. Any late word on that?

In any event, well before this brouhaha, I looked at the photos on sunday in the NY Times Magazine. And, once again, though the Times is to be commended for taking photography seriously and commissioning photographers for this sort of work, the photographs by Martins were nothing remarkable. Indeed, my principal thoughts related to TOP's earlier post about faked journalism, and about how Martins's images would be essentially meaningless and barely be worth looking at without the extended captions (about the collapsing real estate market etc.). The now-infamous picture of the skeletal house is a good example.

The "Lens" blog is covering it too.

I'm sorry to be critical, but if you are going to bother with manipulating images, don't you think the images would be a bit better?

I thought the essay was decent, but I was still underwhelmed by the photographs. He can, and does, do a better job than that--even without Photoshop.

"the world's best photography magazine"
So THAT's it I guess. I wondered why the NYT was still published...but perhaps my 65 years aren't a long enough perspective.

Metafilter discussion: http://www.metafilter.com/83061/Ruins-of-the-Second-Gilded-Age

"I received the same reply from Edgar that the Times published on its Lens blog. He says he's traveling and will have a statement when he gets back and can review the discussion. (I think I might extend that trip if I were him....)"

I think I might also visit a good lawyer while I was at it; someone who could provide advice on what to do if sued for fraud.

The statement, "I never digitally manipulate my photographs" is beginning to sound as sincere as, "I'm not racist, but..."

In other words, if you feel the need to offer that prelude to your work, perhaps you are being disingenuous. On the other hand, I treasure my copy of Tokyo Nobody and believe that photographer Masataka Nakano did not manipulate people out of his images. Then again, he doesn't seem to make a big deal of their purity.

These statement really catch my attention: "It's curious—one of the traditional roles of the print media was to act as a gadfly to business and government and keep 'em honest, look into their claims and behavior and so forth and check to see if they were all on the up-and-up." I enjoyed reading your article. It makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing.


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