Was The New York Times' Pulling of a Photojournalism Feature Over the Top?

Last Updated Jul 10, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

Two things are striking about The New York Times' decision yesterday to pull the online version of a photojournalism feature called "Ruins of the Gilded Age" which appeared in print in The New York Times Magazine last week. One, the decision to pull the feature because of some minor retouching issues seems way over the top in our Photo-shopped age, and two, rather than damning the photographer, a 32-year-old freelancer named Edgar Martins, perhaps we should start re-examining where the line is between crazily manipulated content and minor alterations that don't change the narrative.

First, let's look at the forensics on one of the photos, which was published on the blog of Photo District News yesterday (at right). Oh my God! The photo contains recurring leaf patterns and matching thermostats! The caption explains that at this spec house in Greenwich, which was just repossessed, "For parts of last winter, its doors were left unlocked and often open, and leaves blew in." So, shouldn't the salient question be whether the leaves did, in fact blow into the house? Isn't that the importance of what's being depicted here? What's the difference between the slight retouching of this photo and the retouching, which I'm sure the Times engages in, of a model in its Fashions of the Times issues?

In another photo, the forensics team at PDN pointed out that to the right in a photo of an unfinished house in Dawsonville, Georgia, "there's a patch of trees repeating in the background." It's obvious what the general narrative is, so to speak, of this picture: It's of a house in a subdivision that was never completed, and subsequently became a dumping ground. If Martins added in the trashed La-Z-Boy recliners to heighten the drama, it would have been one thing, but a recurring patch of trees in the background doesn't change the statement the photo makes. It's still an abandoned, unfinished house that has become a garbage dump.

Martins has told those who want to interview him that he's traveling and not ready to talk. In a statement, to the Times' Lens blog he says, in part,

I will no doubt be discussing this issue you with yourself, your readers and readers from other blogs fairly soon.

In the meantime let the debate rage on-- no doubt this will open up a healthy dialogue about Photography, its inexorable links to the real & its inadequacies. Or so I hope--

Based on that statement and my own speculation, my guess is that, as a member of a generation which manipulates all kinds of content, he didn't even realize that in the view of some, he was doing something wrong. It certainly doesn't equate with when TIME magazine appeared to have darkened the skin on a mugshot of O.J. Simpson when the role of race was a very large part of that story, or rise anywhere close to the level of the Times' erstwhile serial fabricator Jayson Blair.

Maybe the Jaysoin Blair fiasco is partly to explain for why the Times has an all-or-nothing policy when it comes to the truth, although that, itself, is sketchy. As one commenter at the Times' blog asked:

Does a black and white image faithfully represent what's in front of the camera? Does the distortion produced by wide angle lenses faithfully represent what's in front of the camera?
So how should the Times have handled this? Credit my husband with the best idea: run the unretouched versions of the photos next to their manipulated counterparts online, and let the readers decide whether they've been had. That would open up the discussion that Martins clearly wants to have -- and it's a discussion the Times should be involved in too.

UPDATE 07.13.09: One reader emailed me up in arms over the weekend about missing one picture that appears to be a mirror image. It was an oversight on my part. I'm showing the alleged mirror image and the alleged original -- although the existence of an original is in and of itself confusing because my understanding is that the photographer hasn't yet told his side of the story -- and will let you be the judge. Thanks for keeping me honest, whoever you are.

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