Edgar Martins and the Myth of Photographic Objectivity

Edgar Martins, Untitled (Atlanta, Broken Glass Loft), 2008

Within the dark and damp hydraulic power station at the Wapping Project, Edgar Martins’ photographs create an unusual yet also befitting contrast to the environment in which they are shown. The exhibition This is Not a House features a series of photographs taken in 2008, which depict half-built and abandoned residential buildings in America during the first wave of the credit crunch. By focusing on ambitious building projects that were started in the boom years and written off in the ensuing burst of the housing bubble, Martins’ photographs depict the devastating effects of a collapsing economy with the American housing market at its epicentre. It was here, in the leafy suburbs of Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, that the global economy began to unravel and morphed into the Age of Austerity as we know it today. Despite the magnitude of this crisis, Martins’ photographs are dry, cold and formal observations which evoke comparisons with New Objectivity – an objective post-expressionist style of documentary photography that emerged in the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s.

Edgar Martins, Untitled (Phoenix, Arizona), 2008 and Albert Renger-Patzsch, a key figure of New Objectivity

While the formal aesthetics of New Objectivity might function as a visual reference, Martins evidently questions the notion of ‘objective’ photography by digitally manipulating his work. These manipulations are subtle and, without specific guidance, likely not detectable for most viewers. Nevertheless, while Martins’ photographs might appear objective, they are, in fact, subjectively manipulated images. This point needs to be emphasized while looking at his work because Martins was at the centre of a major controversy which questions the rigid distinction between objective photography and subjective manipulation. For this project Martins was commissioned by The New York Times which has always prided itself for upholding the highest ethical and moral standards amongst both its journalists and photographers. Looking at a photograph printed in The New York Times should be akin to an encounter with the truth. Yet as Martins’ photographs were subsequently printed in The New York Times Magazine, disgruntled readers noticed that some of the depicted buildings and barren landscapes of post-boom America looked slightly different in reality. Facing a growing scandal about its journalistic integrity, The New York Times reacted quickly by removing all of Martins’ work from their website while distancing themselves from the project and the photographer.

Edgar Martins, Untitled (Connecticut, New England), 2008

At the time, a great number of critics, bloggers and commentators discussed the moral and ethical implications of Martins’ methodology. So while Martins photographed the architectural remains of the housing crisis, his photographs, ironically, created a crisis in their own right. The consensus was that Martins’ manipulations, while perfectly acceptable in the realm of fine art, were misleading and false in the context in which his photographs were shown. Martins himself sought to clarify his position in a lengthy essay on this subject. With the benefit of hindsight and some critical distance to the controversy, Martins’ case alludes to a fundamental question about photography: when does a photograph become manipulated? For most people digitally adding and removing objects in an image constitutes a manipulation. But what about an increase or decrease in contrast, cropping, darkening or brightening parts of an image? Do these changes constitute a manipulation to the extent that such images would be revoked by The New York Times? What about the act of photographing itself? When do optical distortions by a lens, the image quality of the photograph and the highly subjective decontextualization of reality by the framing of an image in a specific moment in time constitute a manipulation? Martins’ brightly lit photographs, magically floating in the eerie space of the hydraulic power station function as a powerful reminder that the distinction between photographic objectivity and artistic subjectivity is far less clear-cut than most would argue it to be.

Edgar Martins: This Is Not A House is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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6 thoughts on “Edgar Martins and the Myth of Photographic Objectivity

  1. Interesting post. You ask: “when does a photograph become manipulated?”

    Of course, there are clear, egregious cases of faking images.

    But photography is about the construction of an image, which is something other than what it represents. Given that, taking a broader view, shouldn’t we ask:

    “When is a photograph not ‘manipulated’?”

    Reframing the concerns this way might relieve us of the philosophically incoherent frame of objective vs. subjective that I think bedevils photographic thought.

    • Thank you for the insightful comment. The post seeks to establish that traditional media (e.g. The New York Times) assumes that there is such a thing as a non-manipulated photograph signifying the truth. I wholeheartedly agree that this is not only an outdated but also an misleading assumption, perhaps more misleading than Martins’ subjective manipulations. Therefore, the reversal of my question certainly makes sense: “When is a photograph not ‘manipulated’?”. In my mind, such a photograph does not exist.

      P.S. I am a great fan of your blog.

  2. I consider it very interesting that the belief, or at least the desire for the “un-manipulated” photography is still as strong as ever, like it is showcased here. Despite the work of hundreds of photographers and theorists to deconstruct this myth, it prevails in the perception of photography. A photograph does, as David points out, not represent an objective view on the world, but rather a subjective framing just due to the technical conditions of the camera, its lens and (back in the days) film etc.
    And though we all know that, we still long for a “true”, “un-manipulated” image – I guess, the fact, that it will remain unfulfilled is a major drive for this longing. The whole topic seems, at least to me, be very entangled in emotional arguments, almost a fear of letting go the idea that the one objective image exists.

  3. If one thinks about the process that occurs especially in the capturing of a digital image there are several manipulations that occur in the acquiring of the image. As has been stated , the technical/mechanical gymnastics of the camera lens and the sensor initially manipulate light and space but the patent software/firmware of the camera also plays a major role in manipulating data to create but a representation of “un-manipulated” reality. Let us not forget the photographer also only captures a split second in time that in itself manipulate reality. Thus a digital photographic image is always subjective and a manipulation of reality.The photographers post production subjective manipulation is perhaps an attempt to represent the objective reality of the image that has been captured in the context of subject, intent or thought. This same question was asked by artists and painters at the beginning of the 20th century and led to Impressionist and Cubist art. Of course we are dealing with “art” and artistic interpretation as opposed to a notion that a machine such as a camera can effectively reproduce a true representation of “un-manipulated” reality. The illusion is complete reality is another issue.

  4. Since when did photographers publish an image straight from the camera? Never did to my knowledge! Nearly every photographer using film did, and still does, add some manipulation in the darkroom even if it is only to dodge and burn to improve the contrast. The fact that the finished print will more than likely look different to the scene the photographer saw in the first place surely makes it image manipulation? The fact that it can be taken to the next level with digital is neither here nor there in my opinion. We, as viewers of these images, will know if an image has been doctored to the extreme anyway, and whether we like it or not is only an individual opinion. So I don’t see what the NYT was trying to prove, other than they had the power to do so, when they deleted Edgar’s images from their website for manipulation.

  5. I have never met Martin, but I saw few of his images here and there.
    I like the subtle manipulation he does on his works. I guess this is an interesting subjects for many photographers who would like the same, to show something near to ‘our reality’ without any errors.
    There is a very good opportunity for me to meet him on this Saturday (28 Sept 2013) and listen to his photography journey, but I can’t as my partner has bought me a ticket to see ‘Halal Festival’ for the Saturday which I am not too keen to go, and unfortunately can’t say no to her. Therefore I am going to miss Martin again.

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