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

Crouching Panther, Hidden Photoshop

“Racism,” states Adrian Piper, “is a visual pathology.” The artist’s observation is sharp as a knife.  The persistent power of racism is based in the visual and this history has twisted pathological roots deep into native soil. In retrospect, the election of Barack Obama reanimated ingrained American hatreds. When it comes to lies and race, fevered belief induces credulity. People believe what they need to believe.

The Claim
Former President Barack Obama was a Black Panther. Evidence: A young Obama is pictured in a Black Panther uniform posing with a handgun. “COPY AND SHARE THIS!!! IT WILL BE PULLED DOWN SOON!!!! SO SHARE IT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE!!!”

The Lie
Obama’s face (complete with dangling cigarette) was Photoshopped onto a base photograph depicting Maruse Heath, head of the “New Black Panther Party” in Philadelphia. The resulting fiction carries a racist frisson—the fear, the thrill, the recoil of wayward emotion. It is also a manufactured image that carries a charge of the iconic, in this case a double charge: the Black Panthers and the Presidency.

An uncropped, unaltered version of the base photo—timestamped January 4, 1998— shows Maruse Heath and an unknown man. They hold handguns against a backdrop of the tri-color Pan-African flag, an image of a black panther over the African continent, and an array of wildly incongruent furniture. The New Black Panther Party was founded in Dallas in 1989.  It is a separate, more extreme group than the original “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” formed in Oakland in 1966. Barack Obama was never a member of either organization.