This is Not a House

Double dip recessions, the tumbling Euro, rising unemployment, falling house prices… the current economic crisis has become so much a part of our newsreels and political landscape that a pervading sense of fiscal panic is now the norm. Edgar Martins’ controversial 2008 project This is not a House continues to engross and provoke today, uncovering the realities of where it all began, with the collapse of the American sub-prime mortgage market.

Martins is an established international photographic artist: Portuguese-born, raised in China and now based in the UK. He describes the sub-prime crisis as exposing “pervasive weaknesses as well as deep-rooted inequalities within financial industry regulation and the global financial system”, and in 2008 the New York Times invited him to create a photographic feature consisting of “a series of photographs that explored the collapse of the American housing market and exposed the full extent and impact of this crisis.” The project became better known for the communication failure between artist and commissioner than for the political commentary itself, as Martins was berated and condemned when it emerged that the photographs, described by the New York Times as utilising “long exposures, but no digital manipulation,” were in fact subjected to significant artistic intervention in post-production. It was found that Martins digitally reshaped some of the images in the feature to conform more closely to his pre-determined aesthetics of the piece, particularly creating architectural symmetries where they hadn’t actually existed.

On his clash with one of the world’s most widley read newspapers, Martins nonchalantly puts this (most infamous) episode of his career down to misunderstanding: “It is crucial that both the commissioning entity and the photographer can articulate their goals and parameters clearly. In this specific case there was a clear misunderstanding concerning the values and rights associated with the creative process that led a renowned publication like the New York Times Magazine to commission an artist, such as myself, to depict a very specific view of reality without taking all the necessary measures to ensure that I was fully aware of its journalistic parameters and limits.” It is this distinction between documentary and fine art photography that Martins’ practice emphasises. His manipulations are rooted in aesthetics rather than in a political agenda, emphasising symmetry and an over-reliance on the role of architecture in the compositions. However, the manner in which his photo-essay was originally introduced by the New York Times as not digitally manipulated (and its context in a magazine well-established as a stalwart of the photojournalism canon) highlights a serious lack of understanding on the part of its commissioned photographer* (Martins wrote his own argument on the controversy in the Spring 2011 issue of AG).

In hindsight it’s difficult to determine whether Martins intentionally courted controversy in order to highlight his own agenda of the frequent manipulations of fiction to create an understanding of reality, and his practice engages with this “disquieting conjunction of realism and fiction.” In contrast to the more obvious reading of a critique on the inequality of society and the irresponsibility of our institutions (and politicians’ implicit involvement with this motivational greed), This is not a House highlights the very nature of how history itself is constructed, and how fictions around a time or place often help us to better understand its reality: “One of the things that this project tries to establish is that over time we have accepted the fictions we have constructed as facts, making us the forgotten authors of our own narratives.” One reading is that Martins does bring this huge, global financial crisis down to the level of the individual but it is not through the documentary tradition. Rather, in emphasising the atmosphere of the home (and making his constructions uninhabited), he creates an everyman situation on a much more personal level: “According to Rancière the real must first be fictionalised in order to be thought. In other words, the real needs to be translated and transformed in order to be understood.” It’s a point that’s made powerfully by the This is not a House project and ensuing controversy that in turn serves Martins’ purpose of a continued investigation into the fraught relationship between fact and fiction.

However, since the episode, post-production has become an important part of Martins’ work, and something that he sees as integral to photography’s progression: “I think it has a role to play in all areas of photography, including documentary. However, in a strict reportage context, it is important that the deployment of this sort of methodology is contextualised so that the viewer is given as much information as possible about the photographer’s intentions and working methods.” Recognising this, he ultimately believes the New York Times commissioned his pieces “because the strength of the work resides precisely in the illusion of photographic transparency.”

Outside the parameters of reportage and journalistic integrity, This is not a House  has been well received with international touring plans up until 2015 (the project has already been exhibited at the Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian, Paris and The Photographers’ Gallery, London). Martins is gratified by this response: “The feedback to this project has been overwhelming. It has really captured people’s imaginations. With the help and support of several high profile cultural institutions, namely The Arts Council England, The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and The Camões Institute this work has been touring European, American and Asian museums and galleries for well over two years now.” In doing this he has extended his original, rather esoteric musing on the manipulation of fact into fiction to a much broader audience than ever anticipated: “My intention from the very start was to launch a discussion [and] controversies aside, I think this project has become a reference discussion among academic, photographic and artistic circles and this kind of dialogue can only be a positive thing.”

The images themselves are both unsettling and beautiful. In staging abandoned building projects as set pieces but with no visible actors, the images are a long way from photo-reportage. Though chaotic, cluttered, disintegrating and bearing all the debris of human life, each isolated building is completely uninhabited. This creates an eerie impression of a post-apocalyptic world, except in This is not a House the apocalypse has been caused by our own irresponsibility and absence of regulations. The result of this “conscious strategic device”, this juxtaposition between familiar, sometimes homely, domestic interiors and their complete absence of tangible human existence, is an opportunity for the viewer to create their own imagined lost inhabitants in an act of engagement that Martins describes as “fundamental”. “Some argue that the absence of people dehumanises the work. I disagree; removing people from the images and distinct temporal references gives the viewer a platform to project his own humanity. The viewer really needs to fill in the blanks and projecting onto the image is as important as the reading you might make of what is represented there.” It’s inevitable that this absence is filled in part by the viewer himself. The lack of people makes the images more difficult to date, and most importantly more difficult to pin down as part of somebody else’s experience. Instead it creates an opportunity to remind us of our own homes, and for us to empathise with the absent residents.

Alongside the studies of individual residences, This is not a House features the grandiose, hubristic projects of America’s unfettered development in the boom years up to 2008. Developments of million dollar condominiums as well as capitalistic hotel/casino/shopping meccas are each featured with this otherworldly sense of isolation and fantasy. One image displays an entire street of a new development pre-empting the arrival of its residents with discarded building materials and identical facades, each peeking at the viewer with the blank, hollow eyes of empty windows. To look into the interior of these constructions is to stare into a hostile void, with the only sign of life a harshly lit office complex which seems unable to cast its glow on the buildings around it.

These studies of abandonment also provide a catalogue of tastes and architectural styles displayed by developers: some gaudy parodies of classical styles; some sterile constructions of blank space with little personality. This contrast of aesthetics was not a primary focus for the artist, however, and Martins’ aim was to present “the ruins of the house-economy” through suburban and individual homes with all the eclectic styles of an era of excess. Consistently throughout the series Martins also employs a formal, often symmetrical composition to emphasise the sparse, abandoned environment of his subjects. He describes “the frontal, rectilinear planes, straight perspectives and neutral viewpoint” as giving “the viewer a false sense of security.” The formalism of this technique once again feeds into the artist’s intrinsic questioning of the purpose and limitations of photography: “My [work] has the appearance of being precise, perhaps even somewhat formal, but this is more methodology than aesthetics. It helps to create the illusion of photographic objectivity. My images depend on photography’s tendency to make each space believable, but there is a disturbing suggestion that all is not what it seems.”

Martins engages with Peter Osborne’s (who contributes an essay to the This is not a House artist book) conception of the USA as “a nation of settlers” where “the house, the shelter has special connotations.” As a result of this constant search for home and a place “any disaster that involves the shelter, the settlement, is extended very quickly into a metaphor for a whole historical process […] In depicting spaces in a constant state of transitional transformation I am questioning whether our experience of place, as a whole, has become an incipient forum of disruptive experiences and expression.”

This focus on formalism highlights the lack of political motivation behind the work. Instead Martins appears to have an agenda against traditional reportage and its aesthetic constraints: “Photojournalism has never felt the need to challenge or contravene certain rules, aesthetic or ethical, yet, within this framework, there is a perpetual search, not to mention a real need, to find new ways of assimilating and representing the real. So I viewed this project, from the outset, as a platform to explore new models for tackling this kind of subject-matter.” His objections extend beyond the medium even towards its effect in creating an audience of passive, unquestioning recipients, constructing the following bold claim for his challenges: “I am of the belief that photojournalism’s prevailing framework promotes unattainable expectations and contributes to a culture of passive consumers who use and view images carelessly and gratuitously. This does a disservice to the public and journalism itself. I am not saying that there isn’t good reportage out there. I am sure there is. It’s just that the newspaper format, with all its pressures, deadlines, rigid operating culture and the constraints that normally arise from commercial/political associations is increasingly an inadequate vehicle for the dissemination of thought-provoking documentary photography.”

This is not a House is a fascinating project, not for the political moment that it captures and the disintegration of the domestic that it highlights, but for the disjuncture between art and journalism and for the, at times outrageous, denial on the part of the artist to be constrained by the medium of a serious news outlet’s photographic supplement and its inherent implication of recording fact rather than fiction. At a time where the boundaries between art forms are becoming ever more blurred, this makes a distinction very much apparent. The accompanying texts to Martins’ piece give extensive background information to each abandoned project and to the economic failures and defaults behind its stalling, with no indication of the narrative being imagined or of artistic licence being employed. Put simply, although Martins’ work is at times eerie and beautiful, its context has made it misleading. This contradiction distracts from the work and from Martins’ tenuous argument for the role of fiction in fact. And so the inconclusive nature of this juxtaposition highlights that the relationship between art, artifice and reality remains as fraught as ever.

This is not a House was shown at the Wapping Project, Bankside until 30 June 2012.

Ruby Beesley