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Ken Gonzales-Day with his Erased Lynchings (2000-2020) at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Credit Andrew Harnik, AP Photo.

Ken Gonzales-Day’s interdisciplinary and conceptually grounded photographic projects consider the history of photography, the construction of race, and the limits of representational systems. Gonzales-Day is a Getty scholar and a Terra Foundation and Smithsonian Museum fellow.  In 2018, he was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.  The Fletcher Jones Chair in Art at Scripps College and professor of art, Gonzales-Day’s exhaustive research and book Lynching in the West, 1850-1935 (2006) led to a re-evaluation of the history of lynching in this country. The book shed light on the little-known history of frontier justice and vigilantism and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The Erased Lynchings series of photographs was a product of this research, which revealed that race was a contributing factor in California's own history of lynching and vigilantism, and through which he discovered that the majority of victims were Mexican or, like him, Mexican-American. Gonzales-Day takes the same scholarly approach to his ongoing Profiled series, which looks to the depiction of race and the construction of whiteness in the representation of the human form as points of departure from which to consider the evolution and transformation of Enlightenment ideas about beauty, class, freedom, and progress. The series was awarded the first Photo Arts Council Prize (PAC) by LACMA and documented in a handsome monograph. It is Gonzales-Day’s continual engagement with history and his interest in peeling back the layers that makes his work so powerful and continuously relevant.

Gonzales-Day's work can be found in prominent collections, including: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, FL; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, CA; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul, MN; Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University; Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH; Williamson Gallery, Scripps College; Middlebury College Museum of Art, Middlebury, VT; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris; Musee National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris; Pomona College Museum of Art; Eileen Norton Harris Foundation; 21C Museum Hotel, Louisville, KY; City of Los Angeles; and Metropolitan Transit Authority, Los Angeles, among others.

The Memento Mori series was one of three photographic projects that grew out of Gonzales-Day's research into the history of lynching for his first monograph, Lynching in the West, 1850-1935 (Duke University Press, 2006). The series began during his research of racial profiling in California and looking for new ways to represent a history of radicalized violence that had largely been forgotten. Through his research he was able to reveal, for the first time, that race was a factor in the history of lynching in California which, even up to that time, had been regularly mischaracterized by historians as part of a race-neutral fantasy of white on white violence, which existed as well.


The Memento Mori portraits were an essential part of a larger strategy to use his artistic practice to raise awareness and create a visual language to address the history of radicalized violence in California. Because BIPOC and Latinx bodies figured so prominently in this history, Gonzales-Day photographed a range of models from different groups and was also struck by the fact that so many of the lynching victims were described as being young men. Gonzales-Day's portraits of contemporay young Latino men are stand-ins for California lynching victims who were often between the ages of 16 and 22.  The men sport contemporary hairstyles, clothing and tattoos. Isolated against dark backgrounds and gaze serenely or defiantly back at the viewer. Just as the artist wanted to experience the lynching sites in his Erased Lynchings and In Search for California Hang Trees series, he wondered what the victims might have looked like. "I was also interested in sharing this history with young Latino men," he says, "telling them about it, seeing what their responses were."

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