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

Philosophical Digression on the Nature of Lies

Examining lies trespasses on the realm of philosophy. This is not our quest and can be tedious. Nonetheless, we need to split several philosophical hairs.

First, the inverse of a lie is not truth. Transpose a lie and you may find just another lie. Beyond that, truth is a more elusive quality: deeper, more difficult to locate, a rarer condition. Furthermore, much ink and anguish has been expended on the relationship between photography and truth. Despite an obvious abundance, few have looked at photographic lies and their mechanisms. For these reasons, truth, even with a small ‘t’, is outside the scope of this inquiry.

Second, a mere photographic manipulation does not constitute a lie, or at least a lie which reaches a consequential threshold of significance. (As is true of lies in general, most photographic lies are essentially benign in effect. Others support low level, inconsequential deceptions. A fraction, however, are actively malign, operating as catalysts of large-scale delusion or far-reaching manipulation.)

Let’s briefly discuss origins. Specialists in the field divide lies of this type into disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is actively created with the intent to deceive. Misinformation is the pool of randomly circulating falsehoods accepted as true by people who are gullible, poorly informed, or eager to believe. One type of lie, then originates from a maneuver to deceive, to alter important substance, to encourage false interpretation, to nudge, jostle, or shift core meaning. Poison runs through the system, but only some of it is purposefully released. A second type of lie arises spontaneously from human interaction, emerging without intent or malice. The instigator can be non-human: an automatic function, or even sheer chance. A straightforward honest image can transmute into a photographic lie through a runaway algorithm, a freakish internet feedback loop, a sequence of unforeseen events, the unfolding of circumstance, the twists and turns of history, pure serendipity, or simply an ardent horde avid to embrace a falsehood. Photography is the only art medium which can produce an accidental masterpiece. In the same way, it also regularly spawns what we might call inadvertent lies, lies by happenstance. These can be the most persuasive because the secret ingredient of the finest lie is a grain of fact.