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

Orange Appeal

The 45th occupant of the White House is a pure media creation. He emerged from the toxic interaction of social decay, feverish self-promotion, societal susceptibility, tribal politics, and the amplifying din of the media echo chamber. Consequently, he held virulent pop culture power. In his moment, he was mythic—a fiction, a concoction, a sham, pure id naked on the internet.

The Claim
A hissing mist of vibrant orange spray tan sweeps across the bulbous body of U.S. President Trump skulking naked in a pop-up spray booth. The image was leaked by the international hacktivist collective known as Anonymous.

The Lie
The photograph is the creation of artist Alison Jackson. Her photographs seduce by mirroring the famous.  On occasion, the artist’s exquisitely staged photographs of celebrity lookalikes fall through the mirror into the accepting arms of the internet. They set “one foot in truth, one foot in fantasy.” Picturing celebrities lends power, and Jackson is happy to borrow. For the 2016 spray tan shoot, Jackson says she auditioned more than 300 potential Trumps.

We want to believe the Trump photo despite (or possibly because of) its extreme improbability. We want to believe because of Trump’s infamy, his strutting and fronting, his demonstrable deceits, his constant evasions, and his undeniable orangeness. In Alison Jackson’s words, the photograph is irresistible “visual gossip… Our voyeurism is propelled into action because of the very nature of photography. Photography seduces [us] into believing it is sure, when we know it isn’t.”