“All Cretans are liars”, so proclaimed the Cretan Epimenides. In this statement, a paradox of self reference arises. If all Cretans are liars, and Epimenides is a Cretan then Epimenides must be a liar. If Epimenides is a liar then surely his proclamation must be false, Cretans must be honest people, and Epimenides must be telling the truth. But if he is telling the truth, then we know that all Cretans are liars.
So goes the liar's paradox. Or rather, so goes some veneer of the liar’s paradox. In truth Epimenides’ paradox is easy to resolve. First, it is likely that the irony of his statement was lost on him to begin with. Second, we can easily break this vicious cycle of logic by suggesting that not all Cretans are liars. It may only be Epimenides who lies about all Cretans being liars.
Veneer is something to consider closely when discussing photographic theory. Sometimes thought of as being windows to the world around us, photographs are usually more closely related to illustrations. Think back to the classic phrase “The camera cannot lie” and we find ourselves at the opposite end of the Cretan spectrum.
I won’t dwell on the long history of people pointing out the simple fact that cameras can indeed be made to lie, but I want to suggest that even today, in an era of subjectivity and prolific literacy in Photoshop, cameras still act as mediators between us as individuals and the honest truths of the world that surrounds us. A photograph, properly presented, still holds weight as some kind of proof, evidence, echo, or reflection. Photographs are the veneer with which we decorate and document our world.
In his book Liars Paradox Dane Manary offers us his particular vision of reality. On city streets, in public parks, on subways and beaches and store fronts, we are confronted again and again by apparent paradoxes.
Here, a man sitting on the subway with a bag on his lap stares awkwardly at another man hunched forward. On the his nametag “The church of Jesus Christ”, behind him an advertisement for the Museum of Sex. Only the word SEX remains unobscured, leaving us, the viewers, to infer that sex is on this Christians mind.
In another photograph, a boy sits on a street-side pole while another boy in a matching t-shirt sits beneath him against a hydrant. With stunning composition, one looks down at the other through his phone as the boy against the hydrant looks down at nothing through his. On the t-shirt they’re sharing we see written “Transform your mind” and we see the camera doing its good work. Transform your mind, into what?
What strikes me about Dane’s work is the way in which these images directly confront some of realities darker truths so brazenly. Divorce, misogyny, religious bigotry, racially motivated police brutality, toxic masculinity, obesity, sexuality, consumerist culture, and violence are all pervasive throughout the landscape, and yet humor, too, is ever present as visual puns clash with ironically twisted advertisements present organically throughout the photos.
It is a broad survey which could be misread as irreverent and snarky if not for the photographers careful and compassionate eye. Indeed, in all of this mess, what is most clear is the beauty of light, of color and of people hustling to live and to come to terms with living.
In the very last picture we see a brightly lit sign that reads “Dead end”; on the cheek of a man who seems to be reading it, lipstick from a kiss. I don’t want to call these photographs a dead-end kiss, but they are just as sweet and just as indicting.
I want to end this review by taking a closer look at my favorite spread. Here, as two photographs taken moments apart, we see a streetside performer in torn jeans controlling a marionette. Its face, orange and grotesque, is the thing of nightmares. Here, I begin to feel like a puppet myself, emotionally manipulated by the sequence and its absurdity.
It’s really an existentially terrifying view of the world, but it is also not all we are given. Here too stands a little girl, delighted by the marionette, smiling wildly with contentment. In her smile the viewer is invited to take delight for ourselves, and thus a paradox arises. Would this moment be so lovely if the marionette was not so grotesque and the child not so delighted?
Lynne Tillman observes photography's trouble best by way of her proxy narrator and protagonist in the novel Men and Apparitions:
“All pictorial depth is illusory, and it may be that all depth is fictional, the mother of all simulacra. We’re living behind closed doors, metaphorically, and photographs are not windows; also, whatever an inner thought is considered to be it is carried by language, which is social, and therefore not ‘inner’ at all.”
I have doubts about the potential of photography to express the inner, but it is in this space of photographic nihilism that Dane’s project offers some comfort. As manipulative as a photographic document of the worlds terrible truths can be, there is redemption to be had in the process of looking, some paradox in the joy we take at finding such honesty, clarity, and beauty. The marionette is terrifying, but it is also hilarious.
In ways we are all puppets and proud Cretans. We look to photography for comfort and condemnation. Perhaps photographs can bridge the gaps between, or perhaps they can only cleave us apart, but we have to live with this reality as photographers; to come to terms with the mediums potential. In fact we are all honest people and we are all living the liar's paradox.