The New York Times Magazine drives a nail into its own coffin

I am not normally one to commend another photographer’s downfall, but this week, an unusual situation occurred. Doubly so, because I have, as politicians say, “a dog in this fight.” So, I am in fact going to pile on with all the others condemning the deception by Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins.

By way of background, you may know that The New York Times Magazine published a photographic essay titled “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age,” by Edgar Martins on Sunday July 5th. They posted the same work on their web site.

According to the New York Times, the essay “showed large housing construction projects across the United States that came to a halt, often half-finished, when the housing market collapsed. The introduction to the piece said that the photographer ‘creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation.’”

It has since been pointed out that the images had in fact been heavily digitally manipulated. You can read more about the whole debate by starting at: http://nppa.org/news_and_events/news/2009/07/nytimes.html http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/behind-5/
and http://www.metafilter.com/83061/Ruins-of-the-Second-Gilded-Age#2639106

So what is the debate exactly?

Well, it is not about digital image manipulation. That technology has become an accepted part of the media landscape. When we can see or are told that an image has been manipulated, we accept that fact. We then experience the image as an illustration, exaggeration or a kind of a caricature. If the image appears to be un-manipulated (or if we are told that it is un-manipulated) we experience the image quite differently. We assume it to be a credible representation of what the photographer saw. In this case, those who saw the images in question assumed they were credible when in fact they were illustrations.

In my mind, the issue is one of credibility, on the part of the photographer and on the part of The New York Times Magazine. Clearly, the photographer lied to his editors.

If you read down into the page at: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/behind-5/ you will note the photographer starting to dance around the issue of credibility with phrases like “open up a healthy dialogue about Photography, its inexorable links to the real & its inadequacies.”

I think questions about “Photography, its inexorable links to the real & its inadequacies” are important questions, but they belong in a fine-art or academic context. They simply do not belong in a journalistic medium being presented as reportage. Journalism is in enough trouble now with questions about its credibility. This situation is only bound to make things worse.

The question of responsibility, the photographer’s or the institution’s seems to me to be paramount. In terms of the institution, regular readers of my blog on The Wells Point http://thewellspoint.com/category/general/ may have already read about my own experience with credibility issues at The New York Times Magazine. That can be found at:
http://thewellspoint.com/2009/03/13/adapting-to-new-technology-verses-adopting-a-new-philosophy/ In that, I write about how, back in 1991, during my final assignment for The New York Times Magazine, I ended up on the losing end of a conflict between an editor’s idea of what I should have in my photographs and what I actually found when I was out in the field photographing.

In terms of the photographer, a book of his work has already been published by Aperture. You can see that at: http://www.aperture.org/edgar-martins-topologies.html From that work it is easy to see how his style of the work must have seduced the photo editors. On the other hand, it was remarkably easy for people to find existing work by the same photographer that obviously was manipulated. You can read about that at: http://www.mexicanpictures.com/headingeast/2009/07/edgar-martins.html

The shocker in all of this is that no one at The New York Times Magazine took basic precautions like checking the photographer’s credibility or doing simple research to verify that his work was not manipulated, as he then claimed. If he had been a photojournalist, you probably would not even think of doing that, but Martins is fine-art photographer.

The New York Times Magazine has been on this path for a long time. Over the last decade or so, in a quest for unique imagery, they have increasingly assigned fine-art photographers to produce work for their pages. Whether or not those same fine-art photographers had the journalistic grounding common to most photojournalists has long been an open question. This latest incident proves this is lacking. Equally important is the fact that, at least in the case of Martins, the photographer does not seem even seem to care.

I was also thinking, who are the various constituencies that were involved in unmasking the photographer’s lies and are now stoking the subsequent debate? Reading many of the postings and rebuttals, I would say there are three main groups. This is not to suggest that they are equal in size or that people allied with one group might not also have interests allied with another group. They are:

• People who dislike and do not trust what they think of as the ”liberal media” in general and the New York Times in particular. This group is having a field day with this latest revelation.

• People who are focused on technology and who love to figure things out. They love to point out what is verifiably false in something that someone said, or did or in this case, published.

• People who depended on the New York Times as a trusted source of information and now have one less reliable place to go to get useful information.

I count myself in the third group, knowing that the first and second groups will never really be placated and will soon move on to the next situation they can focus their energies upon. I, for one, would not want to be on the receiving end of all of their attention.

Finally, what “dog do I have in this fight?” For the last few months, I have been photographing aspects of the foreclosure crisis, with an approach vaguely like that used by Edgar Martins. To see some of those images, go to: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuForeclosedDreams/index.html These images are documentary, without any manipulation.

I call the project “Foreclosed Dreams.” In the my statement about the work I write:

Owning a home was once the American dream. Now that dream, like those homes, is being foreclosed on. More than 1 in 10 American homeowners are either behind in mortgage payments or in foreclosure – twice the number from a year ago. The empty homes and foreclosed dreams are powerful symbols of lives shattered, families devastated and communities destroyed.

After the foreclosure and before the houses are cleaned up and returned to the market, there is a fleeting moment when the ghosts of the one-time owners are all that are left. The remaining signs of life that I photograph during this period of time echo the voices and footsteps that once filled these newly emptied houses. Marks on the wall, property left behind, etc., all remind us of what, and who, used to be there.

This project is intended to humanize an issue that has become an abstraction as it spreads across the nation like an epidemic. The numbers of foreclosures is so vast and the problem so overwhelming that most people thinking about the issue simply get lost in the numbers.

I have already photographed in the Central Valley of California, which is one of the epicenters of the foreclosure crisis. Viewers of my work will be touched by imagery that explores the vast scale and simultaneously intimate nature of the losses other have suffered. Those losses are the kind that many viewers know they are all too close to experiencing themselves.

In my mind, there are two losers in this case:

• The readers of The New York Times Magazine who depend on that publication for information and insight that they could believe in.

• The victims of the foreclosure crisis/housing collapse that the original photo-essay was supposed to highlight/explore.

From what I have read (and photographed,) real people and real communities are being devastated across this country. The New York Times Magazine (and the photographer) had a golden opportunity to spur an important discussion about the human impact of foreclosure crisis/housing collapse. Instead they wasted their efforts and shortchanged us all.

When it comes to victims, you may note that I excluded the photographer. He dug his own grave in terms of shattering his own credibility. I shed no tears for him. I am guessing he will do fine in the future. In fact, don’t be surprised if he figures out a way to build on these fabrications. I envision a successful career for the “soon to be renowned fine-art photographer who pulled a fast one on The New York Times Magazine.”

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