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

Fool’s Gold

On the internet, resemblance is proof, or proof enough. Celebrity sightings abound on the web, some bona fide, just as many wholly fictional. (In addition to offering an uncanny lookalike, this instance is also an example of a timeshifting—a past image brought forward to support a claim.)

The Claim
Greta Thunberg, the youthful Swedish climate change activist, travels through time. “Greta’s a time traveler from the future, and she’s here to save us” states a particularly hopeful social media post. The evidence: a photograph made in the Yukon Territory circa 1898 of three children in the gold fields. The figure at foreground left is, to be sure, an uncanny Thunberg doppelgänger. (Note: this claim, while widespread across the internet, often seems tongue in cheek; time travel is firmly fixed in the realm of urban legend and science fiction.)

The Lie
The past is a graveyard, a vast precinct of images. Through sheer abundance, photographic lookalikes abound. A huge portion of human beings who have ever lived have lived in the era of photography, by some estimates as high as 19 percent. This is a result of surging world population. Consider, for example, this calculation: depending on the exact assumptions, between 6.8 and 9.0 percent of all Homo sapiens who have ever lived are alive right now. Whatever the precise figure, it is clear that billions of people have spun off images since photography’s invention was announced on August 19, 1839—an immense visual trove to trawl for doubles, likenesses, dead ringers.

The photograph of a Greta Thunberg doppelgänger is genuine and unaltered. It was taken circa 1898 by Eric A. Hegg, a well-known Swedish-American photographer and gold prospector himself. The original resides in the archives of the University of Washington, Seattle. The caption, handwritten on the glass plate negative: “Youths operating gold mines on Dominion. Klondyke, Y.T.” The translation: three children work a gold rocker on Dominion Creek in the Yukon Territory during the Klondike Gold Rush. Dominion Creek, a tributary of the Yukon River is part of the historic Klondike gold district. Since the 1898 strike, Dominion Creek has yielded some 2.7 million ounces of gold.