In early 2014, feminist pop culture website Jezebel offered a $10,000 reward for evidence of the crime of photoshopping Lena Dunham, who had recently appeared on the cover of Vogue. Jezebel, perhaps reasonably, believed that since Lena Dunham is famous for not looking like a model—and because Vogue photoshops everyone anyway—that they had probably committed acts of photoshop on Lena Dunham.

The reward was claimed, and the evidence was… disappointing. For Jezebel anyway; it was more encouraging for anyone who wasn’t hoping for Dunham’s public humiliation. Few changes had been made to Lena’s non-model body. She was polished, filtered and digitally relocated into busy New York intersections. [1]

Photography is non-fiction to painting’s fiction. It appears to capture reality, with all its flaws. But because it can be real, we sometimes think it must always be real. Even in Vogue. (Especially in Vogue).

Photography gave us new ways of seeing and recording reality—sometimes even more real than our eyes can register: closer, further, faster. It was the scientific, realistic cousin of painting and sculpture. Photography provided accurate data; artists provided fantasy. During the mid nineteenth century, pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge's showed us previously unseen perspectives of inaccessible and dangerous California landscapes, in much sharper detail than previous landscape photographers had ever managed. His inventions also enabled the recording of multiple images to allow closer study of movement. Muybridge preserved in accurate detail a naked woman walking downstairs; Duchamp imagined Nude Descending a Staircase. [2,3]

'Descending stairs and turning with a pitcher in left hand' by Eadweard Muybridge. Plate 138 in A nimal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements , 1887, and published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. This image sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the  University of Southern California Digital Library , 2010.

'Descending stairs and turning with a pitcher in left hand' by Eadweard Muybridge. Plate 138 in Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements, 1887, and published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. This image sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the University of Southern California Digital Library, 2010.

Rebecca Solnit observed that science and technology in the nineteenth century gave humanity three mind-altering attacks on our understanding of time almost simultaneously: Muybridge froze time, Darwin expanded time, and the steam engine collapsed it. The world was suddenly much older and much smaller than we had previously imagined. But here in the present we could preserve it unchanged, with images more real than reality. 

But—not entirely real.

Photographs are the work of humans, and as Dr House will tell you, everybody lies. The camera can record reality, but can has never meant should. Muybridge’s spectacular landscapes also depicted the most beautiful clouds, but they were often the result of combining multiple images, using exposure and photomontage techniques he invented to capture both sky and landscape in their best light. He even stored his best clouds for reuse when real life clouds failed to meet expectations. 

Should we care that that these frozen moments are actually multiple moments, from multiple locations, blended together to look better than reality? Plato believed art was dangerous because it fooled people into believing the depiction of reality was actual reality. We know better of course, because we know a painting or a sculpture is an interpretation of reality. If we know something is not literally true, how can it hurt us? Yet because photography looks like reality, we take pride in telling our audience that this Instagram used #nofilter.

We could respond to Plato's warning in one of two ways: we could outlaw photography, which is far too good at deceiving us; or we can accept that a photograph is no more or less honest than the person behind the camera. The latter has the advantage of allowing us to appreciate so-called ‘Photoshop disasters’ for what they really are—commercial cubist masterpieces, unencumbered by notions of anatomical correctness. [4-7]

Fashion writer Simon Doonan was once given the job of cataloguing Marilyn Monroe's clothes and was shocked to discover how tiny she was. ‘Cameras are not our friends,’ he says. ‘Photographs are brutal and unkind.’ If the camera is dishonest enough to make us believe Marilyn was 'plus size', then perhaps it’s time to consider Photoshop a weapon with which to fight back. [8]

Dunham, when asked how she felt about Jezebel’s citizen’s arrest, acknowledged that she didn't have the necessary distance to judge the fairness or otherwise of Vogue's alterations. Who among us does? Marilyn was part of a minority who spent their lives in front of a camera, but iPhones and Instagram mean we are all the constant prey of the brutally dishonest camera lens. 

Even in their unaltered state, supermodels are freaks of nature with a level of beauty 99% of us will never attain. Blaming Photoshop for creating dangerous ideals young women will starve for implies that looking like Kate Moss is an otherwise achievable goal. Why not instead allow Photoshop to demolish once and for all the idea that fashion is about showing people realistic and obtainable goals? 

Photographs distil the visual, without the other senses to balance it. Flaws that may go unnoticed in a flesh-and-blood woman are removed from their context and amplified by the camera. Sure, we should encourage an appreciation of a broader spectrum of beauty. And of course we should empower women to accept their bodies, flaws and all. Meanwhile in this mixed-up, photographed world, who cares if Kim Kardashian makes frequent use of the liquify tool? [9] Nor how many ordinary women do likewise. Like makeup, Spanx and gin, Photoshop lets us put our best face forward, without the need for either surgery or starvation. Let flesh-and-blood mortals eat cake and have a flattering digital presence too. 

Writing allows us to preserve the past in a way that had no relevance for oral cultures. Walter Ong explained that oral tribes simply told new stories about the past whenever needs of the present changed. The Soviets used photography to similar effect—adding, removing and replacing party members from photographs as power shifted in the present. The Soviets embraced the implied realism of photography, and used it to remake truth itself. 

Thanks to a long history of lies, today’s politicians are increasingly incapable of persuading voters to believe what they say. Tony Abbott admitted that voters should only believe words he puts it in writing, and then printed his promise to axe the carbon tax on a billboard to show he really meant it. The night before the 2013 election, he promised (verbally) ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS’. He didn’t write it down but Photoshop, which shares a politician’s disregard for the truth, helped someone create a photoshopped billboard to provide ‘evidence’ of his broken promise. Many commenters assumed the image was real. [10-11]

Which is the bigger lie? Does anyone care? Although they were recontextualised, the words were Abbott’s own. In this tangled web of truth and lies, which truths matter most?

We know that words are used to tell versions of truths and lies. The words of newspaper articles are edited, for reasons of space and framing; facts are included, discarded, and rearranged according to the judgment of journalist and editor. But media ethics do not allow for the digital manipulation of photographs in news stories. In 2011, a Hasidic newspaper removed Hilary Clinton from the iconic photograph of the US national security team witnessing the death of Osama bin Laden because it has a policy of not depicting women. [12] Would it have been a lie had they not named her in the report? What if they had simply cropped the image to exclude her? 

In 2013 the Daily Telegraph depicted the Australian Communications Minister as Stalin on their front page, and they were criticised on the grounds of blatant editorialism and hyperbole, but not because the photograph was a lie. [13]

When is photoshopping a lie and when is it satire, or social commentary? Is it when the lack of realism is noticeably intentional? Is shrinking a model's waist a lie because a reasonable audience may believe that the waistline is real? Is removing women from a newspaper photographs a lie because she was there and it is wrong to pretend she wasn’t? No one actually thinks the Communications Minister appeared in public dressed as Stalin—is that why pretending he did is may be condemned for hyperbole, but not for lying?

We need a new grammar for photographs that allows us to interpret them with same complexity we reserve for words. Speech and writing contain infinite combinations of words, compiled by people with flaws and agendas and biases. Photographs are a made of grains, or pixels. They are framed and captured by people, digitally altered by people, published by people. Both text and image rely on context and so should we. We should ask ourselves, always: what is the photograph for, how well does it do what it wants to do, and how worthy is the goal?

Fiction can sometimes help us tell the truth more effectively than a strict adherence to facts. Sometimes the truth doesn't even matter; fiction for its own sake is worthwhile too.

Photographs don't always tell the truth, and that's ok. Everybody lies.


  1. Coen, Jessica, 17 January 2014. 'Here are the unretouched images from Lena Dunham's Vogue shoot'. Jezebel.
  2. See Muybridge's Plate 144: Nude Female Descending Stairs Holding Water Basin, available here.
  3. See Muybridge's The steamship "Honduras", just off the coast of Guatemala. And Panama. Available here.
  4. See 'Long Thumb', on Photoshop Disasters.
  5. See 'AWFUL heads', on Photoshop Disasters.
  6. See 'HUGE HEAD', on Photoshop Disasters.
  7. Sharp, Gwen, 12 October 2009. 'Ralph Lauren Apologizes for Super Skinny Photoshopped Model'. The Society Pages.
  8. Doonan, Simon, 18 December 2013. 'Marilyn Monroe's Two Secrets'. Slate.
  9. Eg. see Watts, Marina, 9 Janaury 2014. 'Did Kim Kardashioan Photoshop her Butt Selfie? Yes, She Probably Did'. The Daily Beast.
  10. Harrison, Dan, 8 May 2015. 'Tony Abbott's pledge: the fake billboard everyone fell for'. Sydney Morning Herald.
  11. Footage of SBS interview posted by YouTube user 'Hands off our ABC', 4 December 2013. Mr Abbott's "no cuts" election committment.
  12. 9 May 2011. 'Hillary Clinton Removed From Situation Room Photo By Der Tzitung, Hasidic Newspaper'. The Huffington Post.
  13. Nick, 13 March 2013. 'Daily Telegraph likens Stephen Conroy to Stalin over proposed media reform'. Pedestrian.

Next: Professional liars by Tim Sterne

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