Posted by: 6x6pix | July 31, 2009

On the Nature of Photographic Reality

I’ve been fascinated with the recent situation unfolding around Edgar Martins‘ “digitally altered” architectural photos that appeared in — and then were quickly retracted by — the New York Times.

If you’ve missed this whole thing, the brief summary is that Martins was hired to shoot a photo essay on US housing construction projects that were left unfinished after the housing market’s collapse. The story, “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age,” ran last Sunday as a photo essay in the Times’ Sunday Magazine. Within a day or two people all over the internet were crying foul and pointing out evidence that the photos had been quite obviously digitally manipulated to be more symmetrical. As a result, the Times pulled the feature from the web version of the Magazine, and published a statement on its photo blog. Martins, too, eventually released a statement, then an elaboration on how he works, and these have been as interesting as the debate that raged while we waited for them.

Now Jörg Colberg is calling the whole thing a “teachable moment,” and this, to me, is the most interesting development of all. Beyond the longstanding meta question that Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and others have written essays around (“Can photography depict reality or the fact or whatever you want to call it?”), Colberg asks other important and interesting questions relating to editorial and documentary photograhy in magazines and newspapers. His post is a quick read, but packed with thought-provoking questions.

Martins’ statement on the other hand is long and dense, but I encourage you to read it all the way through if you’re at all interested fine art photography, or any of the questions Colberg mentions, for that matter. For me, two key ideas in Martins’ statement jumped out and had me nodding in enthusiastic agreement. I’ll save the second one for a separate post because my reaction to it is unrelated to the ideas I’m talking about here, but the first one was this:

“…just as the ‘transparency of the camera can represent the honesty of those who wield it,’ so too can its ambiguity.”

As they say on internet discussion boards everywhere, “^ This.”

Going back to the question of whether a photograph can ever show “the truth” (a question I first encountered in Susan Sontag’s On Photography) — I personally believe it can not, for a number of reasons mostly having to do with time, the physical limits of human perception, and inescapable human nature. So the idea that any photograph could in the first place be entirely unencumbered by the attitude or view of its maker seems ridiculous to me, and that’s even before factoring in the attitude and mindset of the viewer. True, the camera will show whatever you want it to; but if you think it can show anything purely objectively, you’re fooling yourself. The alleged transparency of the camera is an illusion, because to (badly) paraphrase a well-worn slogan, “cameras don’t photogpraph things, people photograph things.” Ambiguity is part of that bargain.

What do you think, about the acceptability/inevitability/limits of photo manipulation in editorial media, or about the ability of a photograph to depict objective “reality”? Are these topics you’re interested in seeing more discussion about in BPC? Let us know!

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Responses

  1. Bonnie et al-
    Two points.
    Sometimes language can really obfuscate the issues. There seems to be a great deal of that happening here.
    Second, I once heard Jay Maisel say something like, “I don’t care what you do. Just tell me.”

  2. Mary, Martins is definitely being obtuse — intentionally so, if you ask me. Notice he doesn’t actually address one of the central issues (why he claimed not to have manipulated the photos for the Times, when he clearly had)…

    I’d still like to find out whether the general topic of photo manipulation in editorial media (as opposed to this particular case) is of interest to BPC members.


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