A teachable moment


General Photography

There are many reasons why I provided Edgar Martins the space to explain his motivations and work on this blog. I believe that in general, what is missing from photography online are longer, in-depth discussions and/or articles about the medium. I intend to publish more of those in the future, and many will be written by photographers or writers. Some might be more theoretical, others less so. I’m not so much interested in publishing something I agree with 100% as in providing/publishing writing whose goal it is to expand the discourse.

That said, we now know both sides of the story in the Edgar Martins-New York Times Magazine controversy. The Times published their side here, Martins his in this post, with more (involving images) here.

Here is another teachable moment.

Just like in the Gates-Crowley case, if you look at what both sides are saying, you need to realize that just accepting one side and dismissing the other one is a bad choice.

Should Martins have told the New York Times that the images were manipulated? Probably. Should New York Times photography editors have noticed the manipulations before they published the photos (and thus before so many other people spotted them with what looks like almost no effort)? Probably.

Should Martins have made his process clearer? Probably. Should the New York Times photography have looked at his work a bit more carefully before hiring him? Probably.

You can exchange my “probably” answers with “yes” or “no” ones, of course. I don’t have that certainty.

There are actually many different aspects to this whole complex:Can photography depict reality or the fact or whatever you want to call it? This would be a good question for a long discussion.

How are magazines supposed to deal with what we now know about photography? Allowing manipulations for portraits (so those are not real), but not for landscapes (so those are real)? How about environmental portraits? Where is the boundary where allowed manipulation has to stop? And if the people aren’t real (because their faces were Photoshopped), what’s the point in insisting on “real” landscapes? And what about all the manipulations that go into architectural photography - of which we just heard?

But if we assume you want to allow some manipulation - how do you actually define this? Which manipulations will you allow? Spotting is OK, cloning not? But then you might have to clone some areas to fix simple problems (noise or whatever). How about contrast? How far can you go? (Mind you that’s an old problem).

If you’re more into the business side of this: If newspapers/magazines want to hire fine-art photographers, shouldn’t they a bit more careful given that the photographers’ work (and approach to photography) might actually violate the newspaper/magazine’s code of conduct for photography?

There are many different aspects to this whole saga, and we would really benefit from having a slightly deeper discussion, both about this particular case and about the underlying problems.

Those not interested in this might still want to read Martins’ last paragraph, in particular the following: “I respect The New York Times as an institution and its staff and regret any confusion that this may have caused its readers. […] To paraphrase a critic who recently commented on this issue, I do not believe The New York Times commissioned me because my work is defined by the use of ’ long exposures, but no digital manipulation’, but because the strength of the work resides precisely in the illusion of photographic transparency. […] the question which I believe to be most relevant to ask is this: in the same way as journalists derive their authority from a binding relationship to truth, would it have been possible for an artist, such as myself, to render his views obsolete and tackle this project in any other way than its present form?”