٠ The problem with expectations in the context of documentary photography ٠

The short documentary above got me (re)thinking about the controversy regarding Edgar Martins commissioned work for the New York Times. To sum it up, back in 2008, the New York Times had commissioned him a work about the collapse of the real estate market and its subsequent effects in the landscape. Soon after publishing the essay, the NYT issued a note explaining the decision to take down the slide show with Edgar’s photos. in it they state that:

A reader, however, discovered on close examination that one of the pictures was digitally altered, apparently for aesthetic reasons. Editors later confronted the photographer and determined that most of the images did not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show. Had the editors known that the photographs had been digitally manipulated, they would not have published the picture essay, which has been removed from NYTimes.com.

At the time I was very interested and participating in the discussion it arose, but am now revisiting the issue with a new point of view: one that equates this all controversy with the paradox of authenticity in photography and its burden of representation. This post is a singular moment of such reflection.

Edgar Martins took some time to respond to the controversy but then he finally issued an essay where he said that The work, itself, points to photography’s inadequacies, its insufficiencies. Throughout the text he quotes Barthes, Sontag and other Authors as to legitimize his position. Not that his approach needed to be authenticated, it just needed to be objective.

Martins’ response is one from someone who has a very structured discourse about the issues at hand, namely, the indexical status of photography, its place as a document and the drama of representation. Though his response is strong on rhetorics it’s less successful in its believability, since the “disapprobation” came from his denial of having altered the photographs and not because of some naif assertion of an evidential status of photography or, for that matter, of an overall consensus about the level of reality, or so I thought.

It always surprises me that people still think of photography as being an objective reproduction of the real thing, after all the debate about the fallacies of the photography medium, but in the NYT’s blog, regarding this specific controversy, David Dunlap writes: There’s probably no more troubling issue facing photojournalism than the digital manipulation of images that are supposed to faithfully represent what’s in front of the camera. But even if this statement seems to me old fashioned and irrelevant, the NYT’s policy is straight forward:

Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).

Although the majority of the discussions that followed mainly focused on the hypothetical status of photography as document, the narrative vs the fictional, the photo-journalist vs the artist and so on, it is evident that the myth that was overrun here was not the one about photography being able to mirror a real moment in time, but, instead, the myth of authenticity (of the author that is). If there is no inherent authenticity to a medium, any medium itself (for authenticity is in the eye of the beholder), then the problem of authenticity here has to do with moral and ethical questions, namely with the implied veracity and sincerity expected from a professional worker (in most of the fields with the obvious exception of politics).

21-Phoenix-Arizona© Edgar Martins, Untitled, Phoenix (Arizona), from This is Not a House, 2008

As stated by Ruby Beesley, in Aesthetic Magazine: …in a strict reportage context, it is important that the deployment of this sort of methodology is contextualised so that the viewer is given as much information as possible about the photographer’s intentions and working methods.” Recognising this, he [meaning Edgar Martins] ultimately believes the New York Times commissioned his pieces «because the strength of the work resides precisely in the illusion of photographic transparency.»

All over the web, in different platforms, there are comments worth reading. For example, Stan B. questions the legitimacy of the author by posing the following questions: How can we trust what you show, when we can’t trust what you say? and Actually, you can also mirror that for symmetry – how can we trust what you say, when we can’t trust what you show? And it’s not easy to follow on this comment for Edgar himself, in 2008, in the context of an interview given to Ruben, from Art mostfierce, said:

When I photograph I don’t do any post production to the images, either in the darkroom or digitally, because it erodes the process. So I respect the essence of these spaces. / When you become a perfectionist, the perfection takes over, you know? And that really skews the overall meaning of the image. So that ‘s why I try to make the images as organically as possible…But I don’t have anything against digital photography.

I don’t have an empathic response to this  project because I dislike it in its two major components: its aesthetics and the social comment it implies. Regarding the former, I don’t find the pictures beautiful, they lack information precisely because their excessive symmetry makes them too clean, hyper-aestheticized, sterile and overall disconnected with reality. As for the latter, I actually don’t think there’s any comment, which is fine if that is his intention. I can see how a blank canvas may be the ideal place to suggest a critical point of view, only not in the context of photography that is supposed to illustrate (not document) a specific moment, event or context.

As for Edgar’s decision to approach this in a deceitful manner, I can’t make comments on his intentions or decisions, but I can make on who he presents himself to be. There is no objective truth or reality besides the one that is presented to us and there is evidently no medium that can objectively depict a reality for there isn’t one besides the subjective one, in this case the reality of the photographer. I see no problem whatsoever in manipulating photographs, chemically or digitally, my only question is about the author’s inherent inauthenticity, which is to say, his inherent duplicity. Photography is a simulacrum, an “industrial simulacrum”, as Baudrillard put it, and so are we. Coherence is very high valued in the modern world, as is integrity, honesty and sincerity, qualities that are in check in this controversy. I’d say none of them has to do with authenticity, for authenticity is a-moral and mainly dependent of feelings and emotions suggested. So if one is hired by a Journal with a traditional straight approach to documentary photography, one clearly knows what is expected from him and of him. The over mundane part here being the fact that he was never truthful to his viewers, claiming that the issue was a lack of understanding between employer and employee. As we all know, that is just a dumb excuse, and one that underestimates us all.

And I’ll finish in much lighter tone with another comment found in the NYT’s blog. User Todd Morman firstly quotes from Edgar Martins’ statement: Moreover, I have always resorted to digital technology to restore or repair images. Those who have truly looked at my photographs, especially the larger, darker, 3m works, will know that they are dust or scratch free, a condition, which is unattainable in analogue Photography. This implies some kind of mediation. Then adds what he calls a translation of such statement: I know I’ve clearly asserted over and over again that I don’t use digital manipulation on my photos but come on! What kind of moron are you? Just look at them; it’s totally obvious I’m always digitally manipulating my photos. You can’t get that kind of effect in real life! You’re so stupid!

12-Phoenix-Arizona© Edgar Martins, Untitled, Phoenix (Arizona), from This is Not a House, 2008

 

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