The Grey Lady Can’t Catch a Break

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July 8, 2009 2:31 p.m.

I haven’t been closely following this budding controversy over the photos by Edgar Martins that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, but I think that’s because what coverage I have seen underplays the seriousness of the issue by referring to “digitally altered” photographs. In fact, that’s how the Times itself phrased it when they took the photos down pending further review (suspicions were apparently first raised by a commenter at MetaFilter). When I hear digitally altered, I think of the usual ethical dust-ups over filters, brushing up details, or removing inconvenient obstructions in the line of sight.

But it turns out that in fact the images weren’t merely altered, they were digitally composed. Elements of the images were real photos, but the photos were manipulated in such a way that the final product was not in fact a reproduction of an image that an observer would be able to see in real life. Artistically, they were compelling, as you can see here. Journalistically they were fakes. And The Times has now admitted as much in a new “Editor’s Note” published today:

A picture essay in The Times Magazine on Sunday and an expanded slide show on NYTimes.com entitled “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age” showed large housing construction projects across the United States that came to a halt, often half-finished, when the housing market collapsed. The introduction said that the photographer, a freelancer based in Bedford, England, “creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation.”

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.

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