It was jarring, stunning, moving and very sad. And it was also shopped.
The New York Times Magazine piece “The Ruins of the Second Gilded Age” was an essay composed of atmospheric shots, each depicting the stagnation of growth and dashed hopes that most Americans have become well aquainted with in the past few years. It struck a chord and was rapidly passed along on the internet.
One of the places it landed up was Metafilter. A poster there, having seen a few ‘shops in his time and noticing some pixellation, was impressed by the photos but skeptical. Early on in the thread, he posted a gif showing how one widely re-posted pic had clearly been flipped. The poster, Adam Gurno, described the clear fakery in the shot:
Watch the wiring and the woodgrain. 98% of it is identical. (It’s much clearer in the original JPG, but can’t animate those.) There’s simply no way to build a house with studs having mirror-identical wood grain and electrical wiring with matching running.
Furthermore, it would be the most pointless idea ever – all that stuff will be covered by drywall and invisible to the homebuyer. No one will pay 500% more to have mirrored framing that they literally cannot see.
Pretty soon, Metafilter contributers and posters on other forums spotted fakery in nearly all the pics. Repeating leaf patters. Symmetrical thermostats in one room of a vacant home. Staircases leading to nowhere. Identical wood grain patterns on two-by-fours. Construction fencing that bent identically on two opposite sides of the fence. Twin tree clusters.
The Times has since pulled the piece from the internet, but pretty much everyone who was initially moved by the piece is wondering why the photographer bothered mirroring images that would have served the point of the piece just as well without the post-production edits. While that remains unclear, the Times said in a statement:
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 esthetic 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.