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


When a photograph lies by extraction, it is generally based in omission: employing camera maneuvers—composition, crop, exclusion, angle of view, and so forth—to shift meaning. This a inverse specimen. Rather than exclusion, this photographic misrepresentation, if indeed that is what it is, is based on extreme inclusion.

The Claim
An astonishing lightning storm swept the Lake District in northwest England during August 2020. The spectacle was captured in a photograph taken from the glaciated mountainside at Caldbeck in Lake District National Park.

The Lie(s)
The lightning image is by Chris Kotsiopoulos. The photographer put his digital camera on a tripod. As lightning punctuated the dusk, he programmed the Canon 550D to shoot 83-minutes of 20-second exposures. Kotsiopoulos then selected 70 distinct 20-second exposures and stacked them to create a composite image of the lightning storm. Viewed dispassionately, we could say this is an ‘unmanipulated’ photograph. All cameras capture time. In this case, rather than seizing 1/125 of a second, this photograph gives us a 23-minute, 20-second slice and, of course, every lightning strike during that time.

There is an additional fact: the photographer did not make his image in England’s Lake District but in early 2011 on Ikaria Island in the Greek Aegean. (A striking side note for a photograph depicting white-hot lightning: Ikaria takes its name from Icarus, the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun and is said to have plunged into the sea nearby.)