Lesson Plan: Irony and Lies in Photography and Cinema, pt 1

Pierre Vallieres (Joyce Weiland, Canada, 1972)

Ian here—

In my fall 2016 course “Moving Images and Arguments,” a survey of rhetorical techniques across cinema (including plenty of documentaries and essay films), video art, and videogames, I devoted two separate class sessions to the theme of “Ironic Narration and Lying Photographs.” What follows is the first. (I’ll be posting the second later.)

One learning objective for this week was to get students thinking critically about where, exactly, the “lies” come from in photographs that we consider untrustworthy. To this aim, I assigned “Two Futures for Electronic Images,” a chapter from D. N. Rodowick’s The Virtual Life of Film, as reading. I also directed students to the website for “Altered Images,” the Bronx Documentary Center’s exhibition of manipulated documentary photography, to peruse the images and stories collected there. My second learning objective, though, was to slide away from issues of documentary and “lying,” toward issues of humor and irony. Where do we draw the line between lies that are meant to deceive, and lies that are meant as entertaining winks?

Lecture, pt 1: Lies

First, I will excerpt some of the relevant passages of the Rodowick reading. Rodowick writes, at one point:

Although the functional differences and similarities between pictures and propositions have worried contemporary analytic philosophy for some time, simply speaking, pictures are not statements. Depictions, even photographic ones, cannot be judged to be truthful, though under certain conditions they may be considered deceitful or at least misleading. A photograph can neither lie nor tell the truth; it only denotes (automatically registers space) and designates (is causally related to a past state of affairs).[i]

And, little later on, he continues:

Cameras have no intentions, nor can they be mistaken or correct. These instruments do not lie or dissemble, although photographers and editors do. … Like all other forms of documentary evidence, whether linguistic or depictive, photographs demand corroboration. In important situations in which they must give evidence—whether scientific, historical, or political—we do not let them stand alone, but ask questions about provenance, intention, and context. In these situations, the linguistic contexts of photographs are usually found to be more misleading than the images themselves.[ii]

I used these claims as the basis for my pre-class discussion board prompt. I asked students if they agreed: Can a photograph lie? Or is Rodowick right? Does it neither lie nor tell the truth? The question proved to be a popular one. Even though responding to any given discussion board post is optional (I tell students they have to do a certain number, but don’t have to respond every week), 12 out of my 15 students responded to this one. Students were split almost evenly—5 to 7—on whether they thought photographs could lie, or whether they thought Rodowick was correct (if only in a technical sense).

Beginning the class session, I opened up the same question, this time asking students to explain their positions to each other. A wide range of abstract, high-level arguments were bandied about. To challenge them, I brought the Altered Images site up on the screen. I explained the technological underpinnings of some of the more famous instances of image manipulation, from Stalin’s “disappearing” of former allies, to Adnan Hajj’s sloppy Photoshop cloning job on the smoke billowing up from Beirut. Then, I asked students how their high-minded philosophical positions actually accounted for each of these images.

Some of the most interesting discussion, though, centered not around photographs that were manipulated, but rather a photograph that was staged.


The photograph in question is a dust-bowl era photograph of a steer’s skull, photographed by Arthur Rothstein, a photographer employed by the Roosevelt administration’s Works Progess Administration. Rothstein was employed to collect documentary evidence of the drought, as a way of building the case for government intervention. It was later revealed that, in this particular photograph, Rothstein had artfully placed the skull on an arid plane, rather than happening upon it, undisturbed, in the natural environment. Much as they are still wont to do today, right-wing activists claimed fraud and media bias.

Here, I placed my students’ arguments in concentric circles, as we went around the room. Those following Rodowick in claim that a photograph only “denotes and designates” could account for the fact that, yes, this un-manipulated photograph did indeed accurately reproduce the image of a cow skull, that was really lying on the desert ground at the time. What it couldn’t denote, however, was the fact that this scene, though “real” in a sense (in that it actually happened in front of the camera’s lens), was staged. This gives ammunition to those who claim that photography can lie.


But what is the lie? What is the claim that is being made? We can turn to Rodowick, and insist that the photograph must be examined within its linguistic context. The context here was a political one: the photograph was being used as evidence for a drought. And … there was a drought going on! By this point, no one is quite sure where they stand anymore. We’ve disappeared into too many Matryoshka dolls of “truth” and “lies,” of “denotation” and “context.”

Errol Morris has written insightfully on Rothstein’s “deception” (if, indeed, we do call it that). In fact, Morris’ writings for the New York Times over the years present a treasure trove of musings on exactly what interested me in this particularly lesson. I discovered this particular interview he conducted with Hany Farid too late to assign it as course reading, but I made extensive use of it in my lecture.

In the interview, Morris makes the following very cogent point:

Doctored photographs are the least of our worries. 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.[iii]

Morris makes his point by juxtaposing two versions of the satellite imagery that Colin Powell used to sell the Iraq War to the UN, one of them cheekily sporting altered captions:


Morris continues:

I don’t know what these buildings were really used for. I don’t know whether they were used for chemical weapons at one time, and then transformed into something relatively innocuous, in order to hide the reality of what was going on from weapons inspectors. But I do know that the yellow captions influence how we see the pictures. “Chemical Munitions Bunker” is different from “Empty Warehouse” which is different from “International House of Pancakes.” The image remains the same but we see it differently.

Change the yellow labels, change the caption and you change the meaning of the photographs. You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned.[iv]

Rodowick’s insistence that “the linguistic contexts of photographs are usually found to be more misleading than the images themselves” is insightful, but maybe also a little bit too dense for students to parse all the way. Morris, on the other hand, gives a very clear example, and his point can be reduced to a pithy formulation: Photographs don’t lie. Captions do.

Lecture, pt 2: Irony

Following from Morris’ point, I gave an example of a false caption of my own. I threw the following image on the screen, and then added the caption beneath it:


This false caption, I admit, might be intended to lie to and thereby trick the viewer of the photograph. But what’s another option? Luckily, my students shared enough of a sense of humor with me to guess that it might be a joke.

Here, I pivoted from the issue of lies to the issue of irony. There’s a lot of definitions of irony that one could use, but one I partifularly like is by H.W. Fowler:[v]

“Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsiders’ incomprehension…. [Irony] may be defined as the use of words intended to convey one meaning to the uninitiated part of the audience and another to the initiated, the delight of it lying in the secret intimacy set up between the latter and the speaker.”[vi]

What I like about this definition is the in-group/out-group split that it sets up. For some, an untruth such as the caption above will be nothing but a lie. For others, however, more aware of my winking attitude, the caption’s true purpose (stupid humor) will come through. Whether something is a lie or ironic is in part determined by whether or not there’s a portion of the audience out there on the right wavelength to understand the potential irony.

From here, I moved from photography to cinema. I began in an area that shares the most overlap with the discussion we have already had about photography: what might be turned “cinematic captions,” moments in which what we see in moving image is identified by a linguistic act.

First, a clip from Jim Finn’s Interkosmos (2006), a shoestring-budget mock documentary about a fictional East German space program:

Finn is not East German, and neither are the locations in his film. At various points, natives of Albany or Chicago will be able to spot recognizable locations: Without the budget to allow for set-building, or even location dressing, Finn has obviously just gone around and filmed the most “Eastern Bloc”-ish archictecture he could find. (The above clip prominently features SUNY Albany’s water tower and fountain.) Anyone from these areas who sees these locations on a daily basis won’t be remotely convinced by Finn’s title overlays identifying these as Soviet science labs. To this, Finn offers a shrug, and a wink: Finn’s lack of a budget to mount a convincing production becomes an in-joke to those that can spot his film’s limitations (of which there are many, some of which are downright glorious).

We can transition here from the low-budget and highbrow to the high-budget and lowbrow, with a much more overt throwaway gag from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999):

Again, as stated above these examples follow the logic of “captions”: photographic denotation that is re-cast by means of an ironic linguistic context. As we segued into the lesson’s screening, though, I told my students to keep an eye out for subtle, more complex, and more uniquely cinematic modes of irony. In particular, I wanted them to notice how voice-over narration can be ironic, how editing can be ironic, and how even framing can be ironic.

The screening for this lesson consisted of Schichlegruber—Doing the Lambath Walk (commonly attributed to Charles A. Ridley, 1941), Pierre Vallieres (Joyce Weiland, 1972), and The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (Matt McCormick, 2001). I go into detail about class discussion about the latter two below.

Discussion: Joyce Weiland’s Pierre Vallieres

Introducing discussion of Weiland’s film, I set the scene of its production. Pierre Vallieres was a Québécois separatist political activist, a leader of the Front de libération du Québec. Associated with bombings and kidnappings, Vallieres served chunks of time in police custody. Around the time Weiland interviewed him for this film, he had renounced the violence committed by many Front members.

Imagine, I said: Weiland asks to interview Vallieres for a film. Vallieres agrees. Weiland sets up the camera, and lets Vallieres talk at length. She doesn’t ask pressing questions, or argue with him. She just lets him speak. But, unbeknownst to Vallieres, she has put an unusually long lens on the camera. The result is that what we see is not a standard talking-head interview, but this:

I tell students that I do not know Weiland’s political positions were on Québécois independence.[vii] But I asked: What would students, as viewers, guess Weiland’s political positions to be? Do you think she agrees with Vallieres? Do you think she respects him?

Here, I found that I could get students to recognize the obvious: Weiland’s bizarre framing decision makes Vallieres, and by extension his arguments, seem distinctly unappealing. Vallieres’ greasy mustache and nicotine-stained teeth are off-putting, giving us a queasy feeling that pulls us away from any alignment with Vallieres’ political message. Vallieres may assume that Weiland is operating in good faith, but the audience is privy to Weiland’s trick, aware both of Vallieres’ message and his incomprehension of how Weiland is making him look.

Once students make this obvious point, there is a chance for more subtle ideas can come to the fore. For instance, one of my students drew attention to the way the film plays with distraction and split attention. Given that she permanently burned English subtitles into the film, Weiland clearly meant for her film to be seen by non French-speaking viewers. And, for non French-speaking viewers, the basic visual layout of the film is a tug-of-war: even if we try and read the subtitles at the top of the frame, our attention is so easily pulled away by that mustache, those teeth.

Another student, meanwhile, quite incisively remarked on the similarity between the framing Weiland chooses and the figure of speech “not seeing the whole picture.” We’re certainly “not seeing the whole picture” of Vallieres here. But what is that meant to convey? It is ambiguous. Perhaps Weiland means to charge Vallieres himself with not seeing the whole picture, of being too hung up on reductive comparisons between the situation in Quebec and the civil rights struggle in the US. Perhaps, though, the opposite is true: perhaps Weiland is charging us, the viewers, with not seeing the whole picture. Perhaps she’s pointing out how Vallieres’ involvement with terrorist bombings has distracted people from what his otherwise very cogent points about injustice in contemporary Quebecois society. Perhaps the tight framing isn’t an indictment on Weiland’s part: perhaps, instead, it is a visual metaphor for the blinders of bias we wear when approaching the political messages of such figures.

Discussion: Matt McCormick’s The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal

I fell in love with Matt McCormick’s The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal the moment I first saw it. It’s an extraordinarily wry video about graffiti removal in the Portland area, scathing in its evaluation of our government’s priorities, disguised as an appreciation of graffiti removal as a new trend in modernist painting, the heir to minimalism and abstract expressionism. Here’s just a bit:

I’ve taught this film in several different contexts, and each time I teach it, I like to begin with the same question: If you were to describe this film generically, in one word, what word would you use to describe it? Some students go for “documentary.” Others go for “mockumentary.” For those who answer “mockumentary,” I ask a follow-up question: usually we associate the term “mockumentary” with a false documentary, one that adopts the form of a a documentary to relate a fiction—something that’s untrue. What’s the untruth McCormick is telling us?

This question is tricky, because there’s nothing in the video that’s untrue, per se. The bare facts related about Portland’s graffiti removal policies are true. And the comparisons that McCormick is drawing between graffiti removal and abstract expressionism are ones that one could imagine being made in all seriousness. Now, McCormick isn’t serious: there’s an unrelentingly smart-ass aspect to the videos’s tone. But tone is something that’s difficult to quantify, and just because McCormick obviously doesn’t take this comparison seriously, it doesn’t follow that the comparison is somehow inherently illegitimate or false. Perhaps, instead of saying that McCormick made a “mockumentary,” it’s better to say that he made a real documentary, but one that forwards an argument he obviously finds unserious. However we phrase it, though, it is clear that the video is drenched in irony.

Students will sometimes go head-to-head in this discussion, because the video is, for all of its seemingly tossed-off jokiness, actually richly dialectical.

On the one hand, it is obviously excoriating Portland’s local government for its priorities (especially when the video’s narrator, Miranda July, reminds us that “funding for anti-graffiti campaigns often outweighs funding for the arts”). On the other hand, perhaps it will encourage viewers to adopt the “aesthetic attitude” when encountering the ugly remnants of graffiti removal, making the everyday world into marginally more beautiful and interesting place.

On the one hand, it’s clearly poking fun at art historians’ tendency to assign value to contemporary art by asserting a lineage to canonical works of art. On the other hand, the video itself sort of enacts the dream of many of the modernist and avant-garde painters it makes fun of. After all, so many of these artists were invested in the idea of art as the transfiguration of the commonplace, as an encounter that could shift perceptions of the quotidian details of urban, industrialized life far outside the gallery or museum.

That’s all for this lesson. Next up, we’ll continue by examining incongruities in Mitchell Block’s …no lies (1973), Luis Buñuel’s Land without Bread (1933), and Jia Zhanke’s 24 City (2008).

[i]. Rodowick, D. N. “Two Futures for Electronic Images, or What Comes After Photography?” In The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pg 143. Emphasis is my own. (The was the assigned reading for the course this week.)

[ii]. Rodowick, D. N. “Two Futures for Electronic Images,” pp 144-145. Emphasis is, again, my own.

[iii]. Morris, Errol. “Photography as a Weapon.” The New York Times Opinionator. In the future, I will likely assign this interview for reading before this lesson—either that, or the chapter “Photography and Reality (Captioning, Propaganda, and Fraud)” from Morris’ subsequent book Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (New York: Penguin, 2014).

[iv]. Morris, Errol. “Photography as a Weapon.”

[v]. I was alerted to the existence of Fowler’s definition by its quotation in Gerrig, Richard J., Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.) Pg 148.

[vi]. Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Pp 205-206.

[vii]. This is not entirely true: I can take a guess at Wieland’s own political views, and her intentions. Probably the best guide we have here is the couple of pages written on the film in Lauren Rabinowitz’s Points of Resistance: Women, Power & Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943–71 (Second Edition, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Rabinowitz claims that Wieland’s aim was to create “sympathy for the oppressed” (199). She further claims that, in visually highlighting the vaginal qualities of Vallieres’ lips, Wieland is effectively inverting “classic psychoanalytic interpretations of female sexuality” (200). This latter detail strikes me as perhaps saying a bit more about the typical psychoanalytic concerns of 1990s-era film studies scholarship than about Wieland’s own motivations. I can only assume, though, that the former detail is correct, given the chapter’s basis in Rabinowitz’s extensive interviews with Wieland. However, I stand by the film’s rich ambiguity and deep possibilities for irony, and I don’t think that informing students of supposed authorial intentionality in this case would be particularly helpful for generating discussion. (Although maybe this tidbit could be revealed at the end of discussion.)

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