Lying with Photographs:
An Analytical Framework

UCR ARTS: California Museum of Photography
Curated by Douglas McCulloh

Lies are ever-present in human affairs, a tidal flow that rises and falls. Recently, lies have been at flood stage and photographs are central to the surge.

Statements, strings of words, are readily seen as assertions, claims. Photographs, on the other hand, are presumed to be a form of evidence. In Susan Sontag’s phrase, we assume photographs are “directly stenciled off the real.” Consequently, photographs, even dubious ones, carry credence in a way that words do not. Moreover, writes theorist Lev Manovich, “the reason we think that computer graphics technology has succeeded in faking reality is that we, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.” For these main reasons and scores of lesser ones, photographs are ideal vehicles for lies. (Read More)

Additional Notes:
Sources for the Specimens
Mongrels and Crossbreeds
On the Nature of Lies
Marvels and Magical Beliefs 
On Abundance

1. Manipulated  (Read More)
    1.1    Fog and Pestilence    
    1.2   Don’t Believe Your Lion Eyes
    1.3   Wriggling, Writhing, and ‘Rithmatic’
    1.4   The Case of the Body Double
    1.5   Failed Photoshop’s Peak Point
    1.6   Face Reality
    1.7   ‘Triple-washed & Sanitized’

2. Manufactured (Read More)
    2.1   Cross Purposes
    2.2   Political Theater
    2.3   Asleep at the Real
    2.4   Expect the Wurst
    2.5   Black and White
    2.6   The Real Thing. Perhaps.
    2.7   Elongated
    2.8   In Space They Can’t Hear You Lie
    2.9   Cute Overload
    2.10  Dead Real

3. Recontextualized (Read More)
    3.1   Blue-eyed Boy
    3.2  A Glowing Future
    3.3  Blowing Smoke
    3.4 This Many Pictures...
    3.5  Targeted
    3.6  Costume Drama
    3.7  Fish Story
    3.8  Extracting the Truth
    3.9  Secrets Serviced
    3.10 Against the Wall
    3.11  Commemoration

4. Timeshifted (Read More)
    4.1  All the Rage
    4.2  Catnip
    4.3  Time Travel
    4.4  Masquerade
    4.5  Beach Pathology

5. Extracted (Read More)
    5.1  Chapter and Verse
    5.2  Whitewashing
    5.3  The Case of the Melting Cars
    5.4  Deadly Serious
    5.5  Striking
    5.6  Smell a Rat

6. Mirrored (Read More)
    6.1  Orange Appeal
    6.2  Crouching Panther, Hidden

    6.3  Fool’s Gold

7. Denied (Read More)
    7.1  Kidding
    7.2  Pregnant with Meaning
    7.3  A Lot to Learn
    7.4  Out to Sea
    7.5  Vial Lies

© UC Regents 2022

Asleep at the Real

Mythologies are elaborate lies with deep roots and long lives. They can also be expired religions: when it comes to Zeus, we’re all atheists now.  Frequently, mythologies are anchored in a culture’s folkloric past. Like their close cousins legend, lore, and religion, over time a mythology can come to support Byzantine superstructures of belief. Functionally, a mythology’s misty history confers power and credibility that a newly arrived lie cannot easily claim. Thus, mythology supports lies the way a Cottonwood tree supports parasitic mistletoe.

The Claim
Mount Susitna is a landmark visible across an arm of Cook Inlet from much of the city of Anchorage. Photographed from the air, the mountain—known as the Sleeping Lady—looks fantastically, uncannily like a recumbent woman. The aerial photograph piggybacks its visual claim on a more profound assertion—that Native Americans are the first to have called the mountain the Sleeping Lady. According to legend, the mountain is a woman in a deep sleep waiting for her beloved to return, unaware he has been killed in battle. The overhead view, usually billed as a drone photo, spread widely on social media.

The Lie(s)
The aerial photograph is a purely digital creation of French artist Jean-Michel Bihorel. Not only is it an inventive fiction but it is unconnected to the Alaskan legend. The artist’s title is Winter Sleep. Moreover, the fabricated photo is paired with a fabricated fable. The indigenous legend of the Sleeping Lady waiting for her lover is an ancient legend invented only a few decades ago. As a precocious high school student in the early 1960s, Nancy Lesh, who went on to a career as a University of Alaska Anchorage librarian, wrote a story about the Sleeping Lady. She published it in Alaska Northern Lights magazine. This was followed in 1964 by a 32-page children’s book, text by Ann Dixon and paintings by Elizabeth Johns, telling the story of betrothed lovers Nekatla and Susitna. The Sleeping Lady, paperback $8.99, remains in print.