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.
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.
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.