The Camera and the “Physiognomic Auto-da-fe”: Photography, History, and Race in Two Recent Works by Ken Gonzales-Day

Jason Hill

On the night of November 26, 1933, John M. Holmes and Thomas H. Thurmond, having confessed to the kidnapping and killing of a young man, were dragged from their jail cells and hanged by a mob of many thousands in St. James Park in San Jose, California. of this much we can be sure. Because Holmes and Thurmond were white men, and because of the relatively late date of their lynchings, it was a tale frequently told. It was, in fact, a media sensation. But in the telling, the facts of the incident took on a certain fluidity. John Steinbeck’s “The Vigilante,” a short story based on the events of that night, swapped out Holmes and Thurmond for an unnamed African American.1 In his still controversial 1936 film Fury, Fritz Lang combined the two lynched men into one, made a hero of him and, in the narrative service of revenge and romance, spared him from the mob.2 The photographic record of that night has likewise been subjected to the exigencies of narrative necessity, revised from the very first to accommodate the conventions of genre and politics. Though the men were hanged at different times and from separate trees, the maker of one customary postcard souvenir of the lynchings (there were many such postcards) saw fit to produce a composite from two photographs in order to create the convenient fiction that the two men had been hanged from one tree.3 on an entirely different register of photographic manipulation, which rendered the event invisible, if only momentarily, an entire edition of the San Jose News was confiscated the day following the lynchings. It was not because of any qualms about representing the cruelty of the lynchings themselves, but because a printed photograph displaying the nudity of Holmes’s hanging corpse so offended the city’s leadership.4

Four unique narratives provide four distinct departures from the otherwise ascertainable facts of the lynchings of John Holmes and Thomas Thurmond. The domains of literature, cinema, photography, and journalism each yield their own differently motivated dissimulations. In the telling of this hanging, every imaginable component of the tale–who, why, where, whether–has been, for wildly varying political motives, modified, synthesized, enhanced, or erased. Yet, taken together, they convey something more of the truth of the image of lynching in America than could any purely documentary representation. Together, that is, they form an image that has no singular and tidy referent. Instead, it’s an amalgamate, collective image containing something of the diachronic complexity of the phenomenon of lynching–its brutality, yes, but also its racialized, mediated, and participatory logic, its presentational and representational topoi or tropes, and its human and historical erasures. This image resists being set into form, resists representation.

Ken Gonzales-Day, <em>St. James Park (The Wonder Gaze)</em> 2006-08.

Ken Gonzales-Day, St. James Park (The Wonder Gaze) 2006-08. Courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary.

In his recent installation, The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park) (2008), Ken Gonzales-Day has taken on the sizeable challenge of granting this “mental” image of lynching a medium. Adhering to an unimpeachable historical logic, that medium is photography. The Wonder Gaze consists of three distinct but deeply interrelated elements. Two large photomurals, one positive, the other its negative, hang facing each other on opposite walls. The negative image is printed on disruptively textured, mirror-like mylar. A densely hung suite of fifteen framed, 4 x 6″ photographic prints occupies the connecting wall to complete the environment. Like the other representations mentioned above, including the confiscation of the San Jose News,5 the installation takes the hanging of Holmes and Thurmond only as its point of departure, preferring to allow the specificity of the event to fold into a generalized atmosphere governed by its own heuristic intent. But The Wonder Gaze is no simple repetition of those prior distortions; it is instead an exceptionally vivid moment of what we might call pictorial archaeology. The Wonder Gaze uses photographs to conduct and promote an inquiry into the structural conditions of lynching both as a phenomenon situated in history and as a phenomenon living through history, encompassing, though not condoning, the gamut of lynching’s presentational and representational conditions.6 As Gonzales-Day shows us, photography (as a technology and as an episteme) is and was integral to lynching’s structural conditions, and for this reason there is no better apparatus for staging this archaeology than photography itself.

Encountering The Wonder Gaze at the rear of LACMA’s Phantom Sightings exhibition, we first see St. James Park (2006-08), a black and white photomural of cinematic proportions. A metonymic, frieze-like procession of some three-dozen men and women in fedoras and stoles is set off in sharp relief by a powerful burst of illumination against the pitch-black ground of night. Enough of these people, though not all, focus their attention upon the upper reaches of a lone elm to indicate that this tree is the nexus of their assembly. The image’s jarring contrast, so evocative of Weegee’s sensational photographs of violence, with his camera’s flash “scooping a searing, shallow foreground out of the night,” suggests something of the menace at hand.7Though no corpse is visible, this has the photographic look of murderous violence. In its “scooping,” however, the flash enabling this picture has left in blackness one crucial piece of evidence and the true object of this crowd’s fascination–the lifeless bodies of Holmes and Thurmond. But this is not the flash’s only erasure here. Three men at center right, for all their unmistakable presence, have been reduced to white silhouettes, offering only an almost physiognomic profile of type; their identities, like those of their victims, have been photographically erased.

Gonzales-Day did not take this photograph, but he did compose this photomural. Like the souvenir postcard, it is a composite assembly of separate photographs into one inexact but representative picture. Like Weegee, who in his pursuit of affect frequently dodged out unwanted background details, Gonzales-Day’s seamless retouching prioritizes the crowd and its reaction over the bloody target of its attention. As with Steinbeck and Lang, the identities and number of those involved have been radically suspended. And like the censors of the San Jose News, Gonzales-Day has erased pivotal photographic information. He did not set out to provide us with adocument of the specificity of this crime. Instead, he has given form to what the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt might call the historical resonance of its representations: their “power to reach out beyond [their] formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which [they have] emerged and for which [they] maybe taken by the viewer to stand.” To simply display a photographic document of this or any other lynching would trigger not resonance, but the same disinterested and morbid wonder that has always plagued exhibitions of lynching souvenirs. Exhibitions such as Without Sanctuary (2000) do little more than reproduce the ghoulish spectacle of the crime that they ostensibly condemn.8 Gonzales-Day’s St. James Park mural stages the scene of wonder but conceals its referent; it is to a degree about wonder, but not of it.

I have mentioned two meaningful absences at work here: those of the lynched bodies and of the three flash-burned men. But there is another, a structuring absence, as in all photographic representations: that of the photographic apparatus.9 It is precisely through the first two erasures that this third absence is made explicit. The analog (but no doubt digitally enhanced) flash, which has burned out the identities of the three men in the foreground, and the act of dodging (again digital), which has removed Thurmond and/or Holmes, both indicate the hand of the image-makers and their technologies in constructing the scene of lynching. This is important because the invisibility of the photographer in the photographic image, and particularly in the traumatic photographic image, has long supported the double myth that photography has not in some way produced the object of its capture, and that the photo- graphic image is not intrinsically a politically motivated instrument. Assessing this condition, Griselda Pollock recently observed “the photograph formally evacuates the signs of its own productive hence ideological location, its purpose.”10 By so drawing attention to itself, Gonzales-Day’s handling of flashing, burning, and dodging restores those evacuated signs and reconnects, at the level of form, the photographic image/act with its historical and political agency. In The Wonder Gaze’s photomural composite of the scene that night at St. James Park, both the lynchings’ victims and their observers (who are also potentially its perpetrators) are now erased; they are not the object. What remains in their place is the fact of photography itself at the lynching tree.

Ken Gonzales-Day, <em>St. James Park</em>, 2006.

Ken Gonzales-Day, St. James Park, 2006. Lightjet print, mounted on cardstock. Courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary.

The suite of small, framed prints adjacent to Gonzales-Day’s photomural compels further critical engagement with this photographic interpellation. On view are reproductions–likewise subjected to Gonzales-Day’s photographic interventions–drawn from the all too plentiful archive of souvenir lynching postcards. Gonzales-Day’s project has involved a process of recovering an otherwise lost history of lynching in California, and considerable archival dexterity was involved in the location of their originals. Looking closely at these, we discover through our own process of investigation that two of these postcards served as source images for the (now obviously) composited photomural to our left. Within the formal logic of The Wonder Gaze, the intervention of the photographic apparatus (camera, darkroom, Photoshop, etc.) in constructing meaning is now undeniable. What we see has only the most remote indexical bearing on the scene it could be assumed to picture. Like all history, it is a model assembled from the archive; it is lynching’s imagein the historical imagination.

Ken Gonzales-Day, <em>Erased Lynching (1933)</em> 2006.

Ken Gonzales-Day, Erased Lynching (1933) 2006. Lightjet print, mounted on cardstock. Courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary.

Finally, there is the negative, mirrored element which, by virtue of our presence between it and its positive, optically suggests the rhetorical work of including us in the mob of ghoulish spectators, a consideration that has become necessary in light of such recent spectacularizations of lynching as Without Sanctuary. But more importantly, including the viewers within the work’s mise-en-scene and insisting upon our participation in constructing meaning echoes Gonzales-Day’s project of critical looking and archival discovery. Because the installation offers little to arrest or disturb the impatient or uncritical viewer–its rewards unfold slowly and viewers who linger have necessarily entered into the active process of understanding, criticism, reflection–it is not wonder but resonance that is reflected in the mylar screen.

What of this resonance? What “complex, dynamic cultural forces” does this photographic inquiry set into motion? There can be no concise answer, but the experience of James Cameron, as discussed by historian Shawn Michelle Smith in a recent essay on the visual culture of lynching, is instructive. Cameron’s extraordinary experience of surviving the murderous fury of a Marion, Indiana, lynch mob in 1930, a mob whose violence took the lives of two other African American men that night, is recounted in his memoir in what Smith describes as “astonishingly…photographic terms”:


  1. John Steinbeck, “The Vigilante,” The Long Valley, (New York: Penguin, 1995), 93-100 and explanatory note on 229.
  2. For one discussion, see Barbara Mennel, “White Law and the Missing Black Body in Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936),” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 20 (2003), 202-223.
  3. Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 108.
  4. James Allen, et al., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 2000), 197.
  5. As Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel with their exhibition Iconoclash, the suspension of an image can be “necessarily coeval” with its re-presentation. See Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Iconoclash (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 14-37.
  6. Martha Sandweiss has written incisively on the operations of Western photography “in and through history.” See Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
  7. This evocative description of Weegee’s flash belongs to J. Hoberman. See “American Abstract Sensationalism,” Artforum (February 1981), 46.
  8.  On the merits of exhibitionary resonance and risks of exhibitionary wonder, see Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington: Smithsonian, 1991) 42-56. “By resonance I mean the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by the viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” Of Without Sanctuary, historian Grace Hale remarked that “viewers are left with an exhibit that is too close to the spectacle created by the lynches themselves.” Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Without Sanctuary,” Journal of American History 89, no. 3 (December 2002), 993. In his own history of lynching in California, Gonzales-Day addresses the problems of wonder vis-à-vis lynching souvenirs. See Gonzales-Day, 182 en passim.
  9. On the topic of “structuring absence,” see Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 85. I want to thank Richard Meyer for directing me to this source.
  10. Griselda Pollock, “Dying, Seeing, Feeling: Transforming the Ethical Space of Feminist Aesthetics,” in Dairmund Costello and Dominic Willsdon, The Life and Death of Images (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 221.
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