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

Marvels and Magical Beliefs

There is something breathless and beautiful in these photographs, something exquisite in the depth of delusion they represent. This is a world bewitched. God speaks through eclipses, mountains form the uncanny shape of a woman sleeping beneath a light sheet of snow, and the cutest baby platypus ever known nestles in your hand. In this world, babies grow bouquets of teeth, Greta Thunberg is a time traveler who pauses in 1898 to pose for a photo, and the new president is displaced by a body double (but the fraud unravels because the crafty plotters neglect to note the stand-in is a lefty). In this world, the cold contours of the internet are rich with sorcery: Angela Merkel engineers a plot to poison the skies, long-tailed wharf rats grow as big as men, victims are actually quick change “crisis actors,” and a Palestinian boy gushes blood under perfect light. The world is a marvel and a glittering menace.

Some of these images feel like a stretch, almost unbelievable. This is hardly surprising; it takes effort to lie and even more to believe. Not much is revealed when we believe in the factual world—after all, it’s just the facts. But wholehearted belief in one lie or an entire edifice of lies is hugely revealing. It shows what we want to believe—what we need to believe—even when faced with shadowy origin, lack of substance, proof, or credibility. It is poignant testament to the power and desperation in our craving to believe.

The algorithms sense our predilections. They divine our deep, unspoken needs and amplify them. Click this, states the deep math, and you’ll want that. The algorithms serve our desires. Each psychic realm contains a spiritual landscape; this one is impoverished. The highest achievements of visual thought and expression are transcendent, speculative, poetic. These images are hollow and shift meaning likes snakes shedding their skin. The loss is profound. We are unmoored. We have become sophisticated primitives.

These photographs are not intended to convey fact, a standard role of photography. Instead, they deflect, redirect, negate. They construct and reinforce falsehood. This is meaning of a type but one which contains a countercharge of anti-meaning. These photographs inflict metaphysical violence, lacerate the fabric of fact itself. However ludicrous, they look into the void. Nonetheless, the enticements to believe are multiple: expressions of political or religious tribalism, of self, of immoderate consumption, of fleeting trends in popular culture. In an age of uncertainty and upheaval, we seek reinforcement and lies serve that need. Belief becomes a form of worship or ritual. Facts are not strong enough to wash away lies.

Lying, of course, traditionally risks moral judgment. Perennial liars are exposed, sanctioned, scorned. But photographic lies are free-floating on the web; they circulate without source or author (like digital photographs in general). They are the perfect lie—lies without a liar. No blame or judgment can be affixed. They are an immaculate sin.

It is little wonder that policing lies has declined and embracing them has risen. When no target is apparent, it is impossible to censor, to moralize. This, we must assume, normalizes lying. The internet frees lies from the taint of the liar and tailored algorithms serve them up in a hyperabundant perfection calculated to reinforce our beliefs, needs, prejudices. They lock onto us like a parasite going home.

Exposure to the whirling circulation of images is finally not an expression of self or freedom, but a hollow exhaustion, an endless chase of consumption where the core currency is attention and photography is the language everyone thinks they speak. We imagine ourselves connoisseurs of liberty while falling in thrall to the photograph.

We live in a pandemic of photographic lies. Lies permeate, adulterate. They metastasize in ways impossible to control. They feed on mind and blood. They become a bridge we cross, purporting to transport us into the world but instead constructing a new, second world more real than the real. Facts depart before they arrive. Eventually, as mankind’s dark histories show, lies become us and we become lies.