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August 01, 2009

NYT's Photoshopping photographer speaks

A few weeks ago, the PDN Pulse alleged that several images in a photo essay in the New York Times Magazine had been digitally altered. The Times responded with an editor's note claiming that the photographer, Edgar Martins, "creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation." That wasn't true. The Times eventually withdrew the photo essay citing concerns that the pictures might not accurately reflect reality. But to the best of my knowledge, neither The Times nor Martins has explained how Martins, a freelancer, represented his work to the paper.

If Martins was upfront about the alterations, then the Times violated its own ethics guidelines by publishing them as news--as opposed to works of digital art or illustrations. Or, maybe Martins misrepresented his work, but that means that the photo editors at the New York Times Magazine got punked by easily detectable fakery.

Now, Lens, the NYT's photojournalism blog is giving Martins a platform to explain how he tweaked his images. Therein, he admits to altering five of the six images in the photo essay.

Martins also responds a greater length in a completely incoherent and insufferably pretentious essay. The main thrust seems to be that this whole incident reflects photography's inadequacies rather than his own.

The Times is letting its readers down by not giving the readers a straight answer about when the editors learned that the photos had been altered. In this, the paper and the photographer are projecting a sense of excessive entitlement.

There's nothing wrong with digital art in newspapers. However, a paper must make it absolutely clear to the reader whenever they run an image that departs from the paper's policy on altering news photos. The exact rules matter less than simply writing out a policy and scrupulously informing readers when images fall outside those guidelines.

Neither the Times nor Martins has taken responsiblity for misleading the public. This kind of stunt undermines not only the credibility of the New York Times Magazine, but photojournalism in general.


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I do agree that it is a delicate subject when it comes to digital manipulation and photojournalism, But isn't a long exposure, dodging and burning sort of manipulating reality, I leave that cuestion open to discusion.

My concern is for accurate labeling. The NYT has a detailed digital alteration policy for straight news photos that says in part "yes you can remove dust spots in Photoshop" and "no you can't reverse or duplicate elements of a picture." That doesn't mean that they can't publish pictures that don't meet the criteria for straight news photos. It just means that they have to explain to the reader what was done differently.

There's no bright line between faithfully transmitting and distorting reality in photos. That's not an important argument. What's important is that the viewer knows basically what to expect from a NYT photo and when the NYT is diverging from its own norms.

Martins also responds a greater length in a completely incoherent and insufferably pretentious essay. The main thrust seems to be that this whole incident reflects photography's inadequacies rather than his own.

I read his essay; your summary is an accurate but polite way of stating that Martins was faithfully following the old adage, "If you can't dazzle'em with brilliance, baffle'em with bullshit." His favorite device — which he repeated three times (maybe he Photoshopped his essay?) — was to list a series of legitimate questions on the order of "Did I lie to the Times? Did the Times lie to its readers?" and then sidestep those relevant questions with, 'No, the real question is …' and throw in some useless blather about the 'febrile tension' between Art and Journalism etc. etc.

I guess you can't blame him for trying something after getting caught with his pants down in such a spectacular manner.

Having known photographers who have attended art school to study photography, essays like Martins' reflect the all-too-common thought process from those with that sort of education. The line of argumentation is stunningly similar every time you hear it: "Photography doesn't capture reality, so reality doesn't exist in a photograph. Thus, if we're photoshopping the image to show something that didn't exist, it's not anything different than what the camera does, anyway."

Much of this comes from people forced to pay the bills in things like photojournalism when what they really want to be is artists, while having condescendingly looked down at everyone who made their living as a professional photojournalist. They decide that if they must condescend themselves to work in such a position, they will tell the professionals what their job is really about.

He also has the writing style of someone who never had to submit to the discipline of an editor or a composition instructor.

I think Martins applied Otter's defense.

"Neither the Times nor Martins has taken responsiblity for misleading the public. This kind of stunt undermines not only the credibility of the New York Times Magazine, but photojournalism in general."

In my eyes the opposite is the case. Although i think the chosen subject might not be the best to underline his thoughts about representation and how it is achieved, he correctly points to a key issue concerning photography: The question of significance and how it is constructed within a photog's mind. The widespread neglect of this central topic is a necessary prerequisite for holding up the firm believe in the image. Sometimes it seems to me that even the most basic writings on photography (Sontag, Barthes) are widely unknown in the blogosphere and its readers.

I agree on the point of incoherence of the writing; but parts 2, the first lines of 3 and especially 5 are must reads. I understand that 95 % of the people cant read lengthy essays on the internet, for whatever reason.

I don't care what interesting ideas Martins explores in his essay. He doesn't answer the key question: Did he tell the NYT that his pictures were unmanipulated? Questioning the concept of manipulation doesn't get him off the hook. The NYT policy says "no flipping or rotating elements of images." The question isn't what the criterion should be, but what the rules are at the NYT Magazine. There's no gray area there. If Martins told them that his images met their criteria, he was lying, and he duped the NYT Magazine's photo editors.


i agree.

nevertheless, the resulting discussion could be way more fruitfull than "did he or did he not dupe" the NYT (which seems to be a clear yes) - but it isn't, and i find that a pitty.

The rule I follow when prepping photos for journalistic use (and that I hope other media sources follow) is that the resulting image must accurately depict the physical objects present at the time the photo was taken. Generally this means I can do all sorts of global manipulations that are artifacts of the image capture process: exposure, color temperature, contrast curves, sharpness, cropping, rotations, and various lens corrections. In addition, I think it's okay to do local correction to remove dust specs and lens flare.

The goal must always be to better depict what was there, not to make the picture look bleak or warm or grungy.

There are gray areas. I shoot fireworks with a long exposure to capture the paths of all the bursts. That's not how it ever actually looks, but the long exposures seem closer to how humans perceive fireworks than a snapshot freezing the burst in midair.

Some areas are really gray. If I can shoot a scene to throw a distracting background out of focus, I will, as will most photographers. Yet I don't think I'd ever photoshop a background out of focus. I can't really explain why.

On the flipside, your camera always crops reality to the frame, yet it's wrong to leave out important context whether you do it live or in photoshop.

So the rules of photo preparation are not quite black and white. Still, I think most of us can agree that using the clone tool to add objects that weren't there is just wrong.

I read most of Martins' essay, and I have two other notes for him:

(1) If you want to call yourself a photojournalist, learn to do it right. The photojournalist tradition contains many striking photos that obey the rules. Start by tossing out your Nietzsche, Bachelard, and Denes. Check out Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Robert Doisneau, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Weegee.

(2) Don't use "whilst" in a sentence when you mean "while." It marks you as a poseur.

Lindsay writes 'got punked'.

Apparently the slang has moved somewhat out of it's origins. I assume you didn't know this is anti-homosexual slur from where it originated in prison. I personally resist the use of words like that. I'm sure you had something else in mind. But I see 'punks' as not the old style tough guys, but a word play of submission to power in prison via sexuality.

No, I didn't realize that. I was thinking of the title of that TV show where Austin Kucher went around playing jokes on people.

Doyle, I read that the word "asshole" has a similar etymology, referring not to the stench but to being a receptive anal partner.

The comments on Lens are hilarious.

Alon writes;
I read that the word "asshole" has a similar etymology, referring not to the stench but to being a receptive anal partner.

There is a series of books by Martha Nussbaum developing the idea of shame and disgust as emotions of oppression. Martha is as professor of Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Her principle follows how the law interprets shame and disgust. One of her more pertinent examples was the man who killed two lesbians claiming as his defense that they so disgusted him he had to kill them.

When these emotions underlie comments they represent a rigidity of rejection that is absolute. Our culture and our legal system can't really use these feelings to define a fair sort of relationship in society. What I brought up about the homosexual connection is really related to a more robust argument Martha makes about prejudice. Lindsey did not use the word in any sort of context like that of course. Just 'punked' triggered my associations to prison slang for homosexual submission.

Doyle, what are the titles of those books? I'd like to read them, if they're good - so far my only exposure to Nussbaum is her book The Clash Within, which is poorly written and, apart from its account of the Gujarat riots, is little more than a verbose paraphrase of Amartya Sen's views.

Alon see Nussbaum's Wikipedia bio. There is a summary of her books there. Never seen the "Clash Within". To remove shame and disgust is a convenient shorthand for me in evaluating how people are talking or writing to me. Aside from Ad Homenem personal attacks people will often label other people with disgust or shame labels. Like scum, or fagget. If the basis for the concept is disgust and the feeling is not useful for social discourse, then questioning the terms of disgust and shame becomes a fresh way to 'confront' friction or antagonism.

I don't always feel motivated to disarm disgust and shame but I find it always perplexing and discombobulating for others for me to come back at them challenging their use of disgust and shame. Just to repeat and be clear Lindsey was not employing those feelings.

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