Installation of "Der Wild West..." Reno, Nevada, 2013.
The Erased Lynching series (2000-2015) initially began as an artistic response to the fact that racially motivated lynching and vigilantism had been under represented, and even mis-represented, in a number of historical texts when I began the project in 2000. My specific interest in this particular topic grew out of concern over the increased tensions that began to emerge along Mexico's boarder after 9/11. A new breed of vigilantes had begun to take up arms. Today, issues like the Michael Brown shooting, have raised a whole series of new questions about racialized violence and its representation today.
Initially, the project sought to highlight the then, little known fact that race was a contributing factor in California's own history of lynching and vigilantism. When taken together, the lynching of African Americans, Chinese, Latinos, and American Indians, outnumbered white on white vigilantism by nearly two to one, and revealed that race was clearly a contributing factor in many of the historical cases. The research I conducted was incorporated into my first book, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, This primary research also contributed to the making of two separate art projects. The book also sought to highlight the fact that more Latinos were lynched in California than persons of any other race or ethnicity, and the book sought to address how and why such a troubling piece of our nation's history had been nearly forgotten or so overlooked that these cases were rarely, if ever, included in histories on lyching in the United States, and that even when they were, they were often misidentified or misclassified.
The images in the initial series derived from appropriated lynching postcards, mostly from the American West, but not exclusively, and from other archival source materials from which I removed the lynch victim and the rope from the image. This conceptual gesture was intended to redirect the viewers attention away from the lifeless body of lynch victim and towards the mechanisms of lynching and lynching photography, to allow viewers to see the crowd, the mechanisms of the spectacle, the role of the photographer, and even the impact of flash photography, and their various influences on our understanding of this dismal past. The perpetrators, when present, remain fully visible, jeering, laughing, or pulling at the air in a deadly pantomime. As such, this series strives to make the invisible -visible. For a more detailed analysis see Maurice Berger's essay Lynchings in the West, Erased from History and Photos in the New York Times Lens Blog.
As an artistic gesture, these absences or empty spaces become emblematic of a forgotten history -- made all the more palpable in light of our expanding understanding of America's history of lynching. In the billboard images, I strive to place this forgotten history back in the landscape, and as way of resisting the historical invisibility of so many of these events, at times literally regrounding this history in a historical, social, and physical landscape.
More recently, I have added a number of newly uncovered images, in an attempt to expand the project beyond nineteenth century California, and to consider the history of lynching in the twentieth century. In the first series, the images were produced the original size of the postcard, while the more recent image have been produced on a larger scale, in a response to the specacle nature of many 20th century cases.
In the above image, created from an original postcard which showed an African-American man hanging from the central tree, and titled "Lynched" by the unidentifed publisher, one can make out the half-tone printing processs so familiar from comic books and other mass media items. As has been well-documented, images of African-Amercans were widely sold as postcards, but this new series was generated as a response to recent events surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown, and the hundreds of other persons that continue to be denied their rights under the law.
To see additional images from this series, click on the image above, or on "images" in the upper left corner of the page.