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

Fog and Pestilence

Satire is ironic ridicule with a militant edge. Raised to a high art by the Romans, satire is commonly deployed to critique folly, vice, abuse, or failure. The best satire operates just off the edge of reality. Consequently, it can be misunderstood as real, especially when it takes photographic form.

The Claim
In the early hours of January 20, 2021—after the morning departure of Donald Trump and just before Joe Biden assumes the presidency—hazmat-suited fumigators fog the Oval Office. In some circles, the symbolism is greeted with glee and with wide circulation of the photograph.

The Lie
The fumigation photograph is a composite. The base image shows the replica Oval Office at the Clinton Presidential Center and Library in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2016. (A 4000 x 2667 pixel version is free for the taking at Shutterstock.) The fumigators are government employees in Buenos Aires spraying for Aedes aegypti mosquitos, also a stock image. ($49.99 from Alamy.)

The Oval Office fumigating image was assembled in 2017 by the satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers News, described as the Irish equivalent of The Onion. They posted it on May 10, 2017 under the headline “Oval Office Fumigated After Complaints of Overwhelming Smell of Bullshit.” A delicate membrane, however, separates satire and the real world. Ironically, this image is false, but the White House and Oval Office are, in fact, quickly and thoroughly cleaned in the moment of presidential transition. In truth, after the Trumpian pandemic year, an extra $200,000 was spent on the White House chemical blitz.