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

Cross Purposes

Faith is belief without evidence, positions held without proof. In our investigation of photographic lies we cannot avoid concluding that the impulse to trust a photo with inspirational implications and to believe in an unseen, unheard God are essentially identical. They reinforce each other, they travel together like accomplices.

The Claim
At 2:44 p.m. on the clear afternoon of August 21, 2017, New York City is overtaken by a total solar eclipse. Crowds jam the streets to watch. Cameras are everywhere. Three hours and twenty-three minutes later, the NYPD Holy Name Society, a group to “promote the spiritual welfare” of Roman Catholic officers of New York City Police Department, tweets a fantastic photograph. Above a dark gilt-edged disc in the blackened sky bursts a blazing cross. “Amazing photo of the #SolarEclipse2017,” they write. “The Lord Reigns.” The arms of the cross are swords of golden light across the heavens.

The Lie
The ‘eclipse cross’ image has sinuous history and is not a photograph at all. The original is an illustration by a creator of “Space Art” and lover of heavy metal and Bugs Bunny, an Ohio resident named “Brandon.” In 2011, under the sobriquet “ObsidianDigital,” Brandon posts the image on DeviantArt, a Hollywood-based online art community. But what he posts is a horizontal illustration—not a vertical cross, but a blast of light aimed left. (On DeviantArt, Brandon gets a modest six or seven page views a day.)

In the social media photo frenzy surrounding the August 21, 2017 eclipse, a “Dan Asmussen” picks up the ObsidianDigital image. He spins it ninety degrees clockwise—voila: a blazing cross—and uploads it to Facebook. “Best photo so far… Not sure anyone can top this one.” Smiley face emoticon. Asmussen claims he made the photograph as the eclipse path traveled above Federal Way near Seattle. According to Snopes.com, investigator of such things, Asmussen’s “eclipse” post is shared 1.7 million times, including by the NYPD Holy Name Society.