On the historical reality and artistic representation of Lynchings
Ken Gonzales-Day & Lawrence Weschler
“Most of all, beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear.” –Aime Cesare
Over the past several decades, Los Angeles based photographer Ken Gonzales-Day has been engaged in one of the most trenchant and consequential explorations both of the historical reality of lynching and of the aesthetic and ethical complications involved in blithe latter day cultural appropriations of incidents which from the very start had been cast as prurient spectacles. Several years of archival research culminated, in 2006, with his publication of Lynching in the West (1850-1935), which revealed the shocking and long-occluded extent of extralegal executions not only of blacks but of Latinos and others as well, particularly in California. This research in turn informed several subsequent projects, including one in which he compiled often hand-tinted vintage postcards celebrating local lynchings and then proceeded to honor the victims by airbrushing them out of the image entirely, inviting viewers to focus instead on the obscenely gawking spectators, and another in which he travelled all around the west, prizing gorgeous Ansel Adams-style photos of stately gnarled old-stand trees, which the viewer is only gradually given to understand were deployed years ago as the site of actual lynchings.