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

Mongrels and Crossbreeds

Some of our seven categories feature familiar shapes, others exotic. Some photographic lies are superabundant, others relatively rare. But there are many mongrels, fusions, and subspecies and their shameless interbreeding produces marvelous forms and riotous profusion. Hybrids abound.

Lies are inherently impure, almost always adulterated, tainted, debased. Liars will lie in whatever ways serve persuasion, so many of our examples are complex tinctures—subtle combinations in suspension. Journalism presents several sides to each story; the internet projects a dizzingly undifferentiated kaleidoscope. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest system of likes and reposts, shares and forwards. The most potent forms thrive, multiply, take wing. Lies travel the world like flights of birds. In a kind of reverse Darwinism, the most appealingly malformed, the most picturesquely putrescent prevail. It is no accident in this malignant biome that triumphant photographs are admiringly called viral.

These images fascinate us because they are both true and false depending on the context. They oscillate between fact and fiction, both and neither. Some things, Hemingway wrote, are “true at first and a lie by noon.” This is not unlike other photographs, but these are more evidently ambiguous, uncertain, unstable. All of which underlines a question which has been a question all along: photography’s dubious status as document, as evidence.

In the end, no matter their source or shape, photographs take on meaning only in interaction with humans. “Photographs are not ideas,” said Jean Paul Sartre. “They give us ideas.” Photographs are also not facts. They are mental space. It is in the jungle of human belief that photographic lies form their splendid, tangled ecosystem.