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


Photographs are receptacles which context fills with meaning. Change the context and you change the meaning. Photography has converted every visible aspect of the world into portable, consumable images of startling power, but it is words which convey subject, location, subtext, repute, origin, meaning. “Exile,” writes theorist William J.T. Mitchell, “is a series of photographs without texts.” Images do not speak for themselves; the strongest determinant of photographic meaning is language. Photographs are activated by language. Wright Morris: “The photograph, after all, is just a photograph. Words will determine its meaning and status.”

When we say a statement is “taken out of context,” we imply doing so distorts the true meaning, that the act of excision—excluding what was said before, after, around—produces falsehood. But photography is based in excision. A photograph is a selected, framed, privileged moment seized from the flow. By the very mode of their creation photographs arrive extracted from context, ambiguous, mobile, slippery. They are excised: free-floating. Thus, the nudge of new context readily causes even unaltered, accurate, authentic images to shed one meaning and take on another.

Recontextualized photographs are probably the most common form of photographic lie on the internet and the examples here cover the range of conditions.

“Standing alone, photographs promise an understanding they cannot deliver. In the company of words, they take on meaning, but they slough off one meaning and take on another with alarming ease.”
Susan Sontag, (writer, theorist, critic, 1933–2004)

“If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.
Errol Morris, (filmmaker, 1948- )

“The image freezes an endless number of possibilities; words determine a single certainty... this is why all news photographs are captioned.”
Roland Barthes, (writer, critic, theorist, 1915–1980)

“Photographs, by themselves, don’t do anything. They’re just photographs. But they can be made to tell a story or tall tale or outright lie when they are being placed in context, when they’re used to tell a story that might or might not be true.”
Joan Fontcuberta, (photographer, 1955– )

“The first question must always be: Who is using this photograph, and to what end?”
David Levi Strauss, (writer and critic, 1953– )

“There are multiple truths attached to every image.”
Taryn Simon, (photographer, 1975– )

“Photography is used to give evidence, and the evidence is always deceiving.”
Christian Boltanski, (artist, 1944– )