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


Some photographs are co-signed by fame. When photos portray, or appear to portray, celebrity or spectacle, the iconic, mythic, archetypal, famous or infamous, they take on power by transference. Such images—even when they are staged, or imitations, or simulacra—make irresistible claims on our attention. They mirror the iconic and that is their enchantment and their power. This occurs because we live in an age of celebrity (itself a faded version of fame), but also because we conflate subject and photograph. In fact, we look past the photograph as object, we see only what it depicts. Theorist Allan Sekula: “Nothing could be more natural than... a man pulling a snapshot from his wallet and saying, ‘This is my dog.’”

“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one.” (On photographers shooting “the most photographed barn in America.”)
Don DeLillo, (writer, 1936– )

“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person.”
Andy Warhol, (artist, 1928–1987)

“The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow.”
Italo Calvino, (writer, 1923–1985)

“Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”
Garry Winogrand, (photographer, 1928–1984)

“I am a parasite off beauty.”
Peter Beard, (photographer, 1938–2020)

“Arriving at the rim of this famous landmark, they shuffle about, searching for a sign that says ‘shoot here’. With one pre-set image labeled GRAND CANYON in their minds, blinding them to what lies below, they search for the one and only ‘right’ spot to stand.”
Joel Meyerowitz, (photographer, 1938– )

“[P]eople talking about a famous artwork have often seen only photographs of it. So some of us started asking, ‘Where does the art reside? In that unique object, or in the photographs?’”
Vito Acconci, (artist, 1940– )