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

Black and White

Certain photographic styles are more believable than others. “There’s this crazy thinking that style guarantees truth,” states Errol Morris. “You go out with a hand-held camera, use available light, and somehow the truth emerges.” Film grain and blur equals immediacy equals veracity. You never see crisp, high resolution color photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster.

The Claim
In a blood-drenched emergency room—and in a black-and-white photograph—five Black hospital staffers work to save an injured Ku Klux Klan member. In the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, the photograph received wide circulation.

The Lie
Photographer Sean Izzard loaded his camera with black-and-while film, shot available light, stayed out of the blood, and waited for the moment of action. He wanted the action to look real. That’s because it wasn’t. The photograph was staged for advertising. It ran as a full spread in Australia’s Large Magazine, a small magazine, itself now expired. Jay Furby, art director for the shoot, said of the theme: “…an optimistic comment on how we can rise as one human race and come together despite divisive histories, horrific abuses or evil ideology, economic hardship or physical impairment [,] i.e. if we are bigger in our thoughts and aren’t constricted by hatred or prejudice we can achieve huge things.” Photographer Izzard on the technique: People were cast in a role and instructed to create energy by “rock[ing] from one spot to another. This, combined with a slightly slower shutter speed, gave the image a real editorial or documentary type feel, which made it much more believable. So much so that it was ‘found’ with the advent of the internet and has surfaced many times…” A true fake can feel more real than the real.