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

Sources for the Specimens 

Let’s be clear: we have not mined previously unseen, undiscovered specimens. No digging is required. The internet is thick with photographic fictions—together with accompanying debates, debunkings, declarations and defenses—and this is precisely the point. Falsehoods are ubiquitous. We do not need new examples, we need analysis.

Each of our seven categories, Manipulated, Manufactured, Recontextualized, Timeshifted, Extracted, Mirrored, and Denied, is illuminated by selected “type specimens,” sterling examples collected from across the internet. In biology and the earth sciences, type specimens have two qualities: they are excellent examples and they are also, almost uniformly, collected early and preserved in an important permanent collection, precisely like our representative cases. (Here’s an illustrative example from biology: Cryptosporidium parvum. C. parvum, as it is commonly known is parasitic on humans, not unlike social media. In fact, in developed countries, it is arguably the most important waterborne pathogen. This protozoan species was first collected in 1912 by the “large and kindly” Harvard physician and parasitologist Ernest Edward Tyzzer who extracted the single-celled animals from the gastric glands of laboratory mice. Tyzzer placed his C. parvum examples, illustrations, and descriptions in the Registry of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology which still holds them as the type specimens for this parasite.)

Our collected type specimen photographs, for all their occasional charm and polish, are not high art (a marginal practice of elites); they are scruffy and active, woven into the fabric of life. They stay out of galleries. They steer clear of fine art precincts where images feel like taxidermy: silent, crafted to imitate life, yet somehow still formulaic, glassy-eyed, and static. Instead, our photographs roll up their sleeves, range into the world’s darkness, and get busy pounding triangular pegs into round holes. These photographs are pure image: active, wheels on the ground, unhindered by artiness.

Online photographic lies, like flash flood debris, cover everything. They are so abundant that hundreds of institutions and websites have emerged to sift and search, to separate fact from fiction. Our type specimens are chipped out of the strata uncovered by these sleuths, detectives, and debunkers. For further exploration, here are a few websites among many.

Agence France-Presse Fact Check

BBC News – Reality Check

C4 News FactCheck (UK)

Climate Feedback

FactCheck.org (Annenberg Public Policy Center)


Full Fact


The New York Times – Fact Check


Real Clear Politics – Fact Check Review

Reuters Fact Check

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology ABC Fact Check


Truth or Fiction

USA Today Fact Check

The Washington Post Fact Checker