Abruptly, impossibly, silence fell over that raging mob, as if they had been struck dumb. No one moved or spoke a word. I stood there in the midst of thousands of people, and as I looked at the mob around me I thought I was in a room, a large room where a photographer had strips of film negatives hanging from the walls to dry…A brief eternity passed as I stood there as if hypnotized. Then the roomful of negatives disappeared and I found myself looking into the faces of people who had been flat images only a moment ago.11
The presence of photography in this passage, and thus at the scene of lynching, is unmistakable. Cameron’s experience testifies to lynching’s status as already photographically determined, and anticipates both the banal darkroom activity that would immortalize his own would-be murder and the “flat” collapsed space of the image that would emerge and proliferate from that darkroom. Recent scholarship recognizes that photography is not simply a technology of documentation, but is one that is structurally integral to the cultural logic of lynching in toto. “Photography,” Shawn Michele Smith notes, “documented lynching but also played a role in orchestrating it.”12 The lynching that Cameron survived was itself photographed. As Smith explores in considerable detail, one of these photographs, taken by Lawrence Beitler, achieved such ubiquity in the press that in many ways it has come to stand as the very icon of lynching in America, as the image around which debates about lynching and its representations revolve. Photography’s pervasive witnessing enabled lynching’s initial “justification” by supporting the crime’s necessary myth of racial identification: it rendered race visible. And photography promised, through mass reproduction in postcards and in the press, to broadcast the act’s catalytic message of racialized terror.13 In a circular system, photography both fostered a concept of criminalized racial difference, thus rationalizing lynching, and documented and disseminated the brutal consequence of this rationalization.
With race so integral a concept to any negotiation with the history and photography of lynching, it is necessary to note that, despite Holmes’s and Thurmond’s Anglo-American identities, a wall text accompanying The Wonder Gaze at LACMA indicates that the installation is “part of [the artist’s] project to recover the largely forgotten history of white-on-Mexican lynching in the Southwestern United States,” a characterization that has already been uncritically repeated in review essays discussing the Phantom Sightings exhibition.14 This observation, while not true to the facts of the source imagery, is fundamentally correct; the historical, institutionally sanctioned invisibility of the extra-judicial executions of Latino bodies is a key referent of Gonzales-Day’s conspicuously absent bodies. Nonetheless, it raises problems that we elide at our peril. LACMA’s language suggests that the lynching of one or more Mexican men or women at St. James Park is the subject matter of Gonzales-Day’s source photographs for The Wonder Gaze. This suggestion, to make only the most obvious (and perhaps generous) point, is misleading to the viewing public and denigrating to the memories of the actual victims.15 The moment a photographic image’s supportive text willfully diverges from the verifiable facts of that image’s subject matter is precisely the moment where we encounter if not ideological dissimulation, then at least the potential dangers posed by the absorption of recognizable archival photographs of injustice into the operations of allegory, grossly distorting the profound connotation of historical and situational specificity these archival images bring with them.
In The Wonder Gaze, Gonzales-Day’s erasure of specific identities enables the melding of the general and the particular necessary to an aesthetic engagement with traumatic images, an engagement that potentially yields a critical perspective.16 However, this move in the work is compromised by the museum’s unfortunate didactic re-insertion of specific and factually faulty identities. If such images as those activated in The Wonder Gaze–images so carefully rescued by Gonzales-Day from institutional archives all over California during his documentation of some 350 lynchings in the state–are to be textually framed in a responsible way, they demand anchorage to whatever can be known of their factual circumstances. This is exactly how photographic evidence pertaining to the St. James Park lynchings is presented by Gonzales-Day in his book on the photographic history of extra-judicial executions in California, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, where we learn, in great detail, about Holmes and Thurmond and their disastrous last days. The rhetorical mechanics of Gonzales-Day’s erasures may not depend for their corrective efficacy on the contextual support provided by Lynching in the West, but the obfuscation introduced by LACMA’s misleading didactic threatens to shift the artist’s photographic erasures from provocations to, well, straightforward historical negation.
Restored as a referent, the whiteness of Holmes and Thurmond’s bodies, itself historically “invisible” as race, however necessary its recognition is to the history of lynching in America, produced its own erasure. Just as their hanging facilitated a national discussion about lynching, it also obscured the particular racial politics of lynching in California. As Steinbeck’s pragmatic substitution of an African-American victim or Lang’s substitution of an innocent white man instantiate, the St. James Park lynchings, in effect, became a screen upon which any number of identities could be projected in the service of voicing the appropriate and necessary condemnation. In California, lynching was, as Lynching in the West has demonstrated, a crime directed predominantly against Latino and Hispanic populations.17 To allow for the specificity of the St. James Park incident to stand in for lynching in California is to elide or at least displace lynching’s more familiar integral logic–white racism–from the discussion. As historian Stephen J. Pitti has discussed, many ethnic Mexicans in northern California later remembered the lynching of Holmes and Thurmond as one more episode amidst an epidemic of mob violence against Mexicans, so frequently was the fury of the mob directed against them.18 Factually, this projection, like Steinbeck’s, was incorrect; but in substance, it was reasonable. In The Wonder Gaze, the status of the Holmes and Thurmond lynching as the most photographically visible and therefore knowable lynching in California history stands as evidence only of photography’s radical inadequacy to its own historical evidentiary burden.
The photographic presence of Holmes’s and Thurmond’s bodies, then, in addition to producing deadening wonder in the face of grisly murder, would also have re-directed analysis away from the predominant and, until recently, historically marginalized racialized logic of lynching in California. It also would have clouded the artist’s central concern, only alluded to at LACMA: the reciprocal dynamics of photography and race in the construction of lynching in America. It is only in their absence, that is, that the question of photography’s punitive relation to identity seeps, enigmatically, to the surface. For this reason, The Wonder Gaze must be understood as only one component in a larger project–one which, in accord with Gonzales-Day’s insistence upon the inadequacy of the photograph to any thorough reckoning with history–comes into sharper focus when understood in relation to another work by the artist that was on view, luckily, just across the street.
With his installation Of Physiognomy & The Love of Mankind at Steve Turner Contemporary, which coincided with the LACMA project for two weeks in April 2008, Gonzales-Day extended his thesis with photographs, drawings, and a sculpture. The sculpture, titled A sure and convenient machine for drawing silhouettes (2008), will be the focus of the remainder of this essay. Shifting away from The Wonder Gaze‘s consideration of the operations of lynching’s photographic documentation, this exhibition acts in the conceptual space opened there to conduct an inquiry into the roots of racial violence and their concealment within the photographic medium’s very ontology.
If photographs can be seen as essential components in the conduct of lynching’s hateful agenda, the basis of this application can be located just as effectively in the origins of the technology itself, in the very impulse that led to photography’s invention. It is a truism of photo history that the desire to chemically affix the shadow to a support grew out of the radical socio-economic changes of modernization and its attendant reorganization of culture. A central premise of many of these histories is that the West’s new middle classes required a fast, cheap, and easy technology for the production and stabilization of their own likenesses, and thus the consolidation of their newly formulated and otherwise all too slippery identities. Accordingly, these histories offer up a number of pre-photographic technologies in support of their argument, tracing a lineage from photography back through its mechanical and more primitive predecessors. The physionotrace was a device that mechanically transmitted the draftsman’s gestures of tracing the sitter’s profile through a viewfinder to paper (with strikingly good results). The pantograph was a similar if simpler mechanism for reproducing extant silhouettes. Preceding both inventions was the idea of the silhouette machine: a chair which fastened the subject in profile between a candle and a sheet of parchment, thus enabling the accurate and easy tracing of the shadow’s outline.19 Voila, a portrait.
The silhouette machine, an object whose description suggests an innocence that belies its catastrophic implications, stands as a remarkable emblem of the irreversible braiding of indexical representation and racialized pseudoscience that would ultimately support lynching’s dehumanizing rationale.20 A sure and convenient machine for drawing silhouettes is Gonzalez-Day’s sculptural rendering of this apparently never before fabricated chair.21 Gonzales-Day drew his model for the chair from Essays on Physiognomy, Designed to Promote the Knowledge and Love of Mankind (1788-89), by the eighteenth-century pastor and father of “modern” physiognomy, Johann Kaspar Lavater. In his text, Lavater adapted the heretofore explicitly metaphysical project of understanding and ordering the souls of men through the body (a subject covered at length in writings originally thought to be Aristotle’s but now attributed to the pseudo-Aristotle) to conform to the scientific episteme of his own day.22 He did this by reducing the relevant physiognomic data from the overwhelming semiotic plenitude of the human face to what art historian Victor I. Stoichita has called the Urbild, or the absolute minimum essential index offered by the traced silhouette.23 Historians of photography are not wrong to recognize in Lavater’s impulse a forebear of the indexical portrait-making mechanism of photography, but it is in that impulse’s promise of objective knowledge about the unknowable and contingent interiority of the subject that his chair anticipates less the camera than the full weight of that technology’s subsequent taxonomizing applications.
As Shawn Michelle Smith has observed, the impulse to consolidate the identity of the middle class subject through photographic portraiture and thus make legible its wholesome, normative soul carried its own structural necessity of differentiation:
The desire…to deem their own photographic portraits auratic led them to categorize and to classify–to monitor–the representations of others. Studies of the criminal body, in particular, answered to middle-class concerns about the essences some bodies might mask and hide, and attempted to make those bodies transparent to the technologically aided, professional middle-class eye.24
From Cesare Lombroso’s criminal pathology of the late nineteenth century, which served to identify criminals prior to their crime on the basis of photography and other indexically derived data such as blood pressure readings and handwriting samples, to the eugenicist Francis Galton’s explicitly racialized photographic program of identifying “impure” bloodlines and physiognomic indices of probable criminality, the indexical representation of the body was almost from the very start recruited into the project of rendering difference visible, and not just undesirable, but criminal.
That this categorical collapse was operative in the American Southwest and had bloody implications for those identified as visibly different, and therefore criminal, is illustrated nowhere better than in the nineteenth-century philosopher Josiah Royce’s 1886 observation on the character of vigilante jurisprudence in the California of his day: “The foreign miners, being civilized men, generally received a ‘fair trial,’ as I said, whenever they were accused. It was, however, considered safe by an average lynching jury in those days to convict a ‘greaser’ on very moderate evidence if none better could be had. One could see his guilt so plainly written, we know, in his ugly swarthy face, before the trial began.”25
Physiognomically informed photographic technologies of racial taxonomy and criminology developed in virtual lockstep with the bloodlust of Southern Californian lynching committees. But can we locate so much in so simple an artifact as Lavater’s silhouette chair? Writing in the late eighteenth century, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a German scientist, satirist, and contemporary of Lavater, suggests that as much was apparent from the very start: “If physiognomics ever becomes what Lavater hopes it will be, then we will begin to hang children before they commit the crimes that deserve the gallows; a new kind of confirmation ritual will be practiced every year. A physiognomic auto-da-fe.”26
In manufacturing Lavater’s proposed but un-built silhouette machine, Gonzales-Day has (again) given material form to the otherwise nebulous kernel of photography’s physiognomic unconscious. As an idea of the enlightenment imagination, Lavater’s chair could continue to serve as its own structuring absence, a ghost of a rumor haunting the medium. However compelling as an idea, the banality of this rickety chair as an object belies the assumption that through the simple recording of his shadow, access to some kind of total–even pathologizing or criminalizing– knowledge of man might be had. As a concept, this machine for producing soul-assessing indices embodies the conceptual basis for the pseudoscience of both Lombroso and Galton and their increasingly malignant intellectual heirs, from lynch-mob mania to Nazi rationalism. But sitting there, on the floor of Steve Turner Contemporary, with weight and mass and wood and screws, it is too fragile a thing to support the full burden of the enlightenment principles run amok that it ostensibly emblematized. And how little of value its indices have ultimately laid bare! As Gonzales-Day’s The Wonder Gaze so deftly demonstrates, it is not just through the photographer’s power to secure the shadow that our knowledge of the world is enhanced, but also through the power of that photographer to disrupt such easy, and disastrous, determinations.
Jason Hill is a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Southern California and a 2008-09 Luce/ACLS Fellow.
- Shawn Michelle Smith, “The Evidence of Lynching,” in Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 14.↵
- Smith, 16.↵
- In addition to Smith’s discussion, see, for example, Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Shadow and the Substance: Race, Photography, and the Index,” and Leigh Raiford, “The Consumption of Lynching Images,” both in Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, eds., Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (New York: International Center of Photography, 2003), 111-27 and 267-73.↵
- See, for example, Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement,” exh. review, Artforum (Summer 2008), 443. Extrapolating from LACMA’s didactic, Bryan-Wilson writes, erroneously though perfectly understandably, that “Gonzales-Day situates the viewer between two mirror images–wall-size photographs of the lynching of a Mexican-American in the American Southwest.”↵
- For an apt discussion of this model, see Mieke Bal, “The Pain of Images,” in Mark Reinhardt, ed., Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 93-115.↵
- Gonzales-Day, p. 26 en passim.↵
- Stephen J. Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 104.↵
- See, among others, Bernard Marbot, “Towards the discovery (before 1839)” in A History of Photography: Social and Cultural Perspectives eds. Jean-Claude Lemagny and Andre Rouille, transl. Janet Lloyd. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 19-28; Gisele Freund, Photography and Society (Boston: David R. Godine, 1980); and Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, Third Edition (New York: Abbeville, 1997).↵
- Lavater proposes his design thus: The common method of taking shades is accompanied with many inconveniences. It is hardly possible the person drawn should sit sufficiently still; the designer is obliged to change his place, he must approach so near to the person that motion is almost inevitable, and the designer is in the most inconvenient position… A seat purposely contrived would be more convenient. The shade should be taken on post paper, or rather on thin oiled paper, well dried. Let the head and back be supported by a chair, and the shade fall on the oil paper behind a clear flat, polished glass. Let the drawer sit behind the glass, holding the frame with his left hand, and, having a sharp black lead pencil, draw with the right. The glass, in a detached sliding-frame, may be raised or lowered, according to the height of the person. The bottom of the glass frame, being thin, will be best of iron, and should be raised so as to rest steadily upon the shoulder. In the center, upon the glass, should be a small piece of wood or iron, to which fasten a small round cushion, supported by a short pin, scarcely half an inch long, which also may be raised or lowered, and against which the person drawn may lean upon. Johann Kaspar Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy: Designed to Promote the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind (London: John Murray, 1792), 179.↵
- According to Gonzales-Day, prior to his own silhouette machine, Lavater’s design has never before been built. Ken Gonzales-Day, Physiognomy and the Love of Mankind, unpublished manuscript, courtesy of Ken Gonzales-Day and Steve Turner Contemporary.↵
- On the long history of physiognomy, see Patrizia Magli, “The Face and the Soul,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body: Part Two, ed. Michael Feher (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 87-127. Tom Gunning’s “In Your Face: Physiognomy, Photography, and the Gnostic Mission of early Film,” Modernism/Modernity 4.1 (1997), 1-29, provides a more succinct account.↵
- Victor I. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow (London: Reaktion, 1997), 157.↵
- Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in American Visual Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 69.↵
- Josiah Royce quoted in Gonzales-Day, 133. “Greaser” was a frontier slur applied to peoples of Mexican, Latin American and Indian descent as early as 1846. Gonzales-Day, 30.↵
- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, quoted in Richard T. Gray, About Face: German Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), 99.↵