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

In Space They Can’t Hear You Lie

If a photograph seems far-fetched, slather on a layer of narrative. Without altering a pixel, text can utterly change a photograph, especially a compelling space age backstory stuffed with indecipherable acronym-laden detail.

The Claim
NASA photographs show a newly discovered planet orbiting a star 1,300 light-years from earth in the constellation Pictor. Bearing the name TOI 1338 b, the planet is stunning—iridescent swirls of pink and blue, eddies of semi-transparent shimmering cloud. Not only that, but TOI 1338 b was discovered by Wolf Cukier, a 17-year-old high school student on day three of his two-month NASA summer internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The Lie
The pink planet “photographs” are fantasy-based digital illustrations, nothing more. (Created in a C++ programming environment using an algorithm by Íñigo Quílez that generates organic-looking textures and noise-based warping rendered in OpenGL 2.1 on a Raspberry PI, but I’m sure you guessed as much.) The images are among hundreds of fantasy planets produced by a Computer Science and Engineering Department student at the University of Nevada. She (?) operates under the Tumblr handle “Squids-among-stars.”

So, the “NASA photographs” of a new planet are fabrications. The story of Wolf Cukier, however, is fact. The 17-year-old did discover a new planet on day three of his two-month high school student NASA internship. “I was looking through the data for everything the volunteers had flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system where two stars circle around each other, and from our view eclipse each other every orbit. About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338. At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.” Cukier’s find is indeed called TOI 1338 b. It is 6.9 times larger than earth and 1,300 light years distant, but it is unseen, its existence sensed by a gravitational wobble, and definitely unphotographed.