The Profiled series began while I was a visiting fellow at the Getty Research Institute where I set out to photograph every portrait bust in the collection as a way of thinking about Los Angeles, whiteness, historical memory, and museum display.
The profile was long a favorite site for moral and character evaluations, even before the genteel paper silhouettes of the Victorians or the photographic mug shots of the 19th century criminologist. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, author Johann Kaspar Lavater wrote his widely influential, and outrageously unscientific, Essays on Physiognomy, which argued for the importance of “physiognomical lines,” as he called them, in character analysis and also laid the foundations for what would later become racial positivism. Troubled by the Enlightenment project’s relentless fascination with measuring everything, from the angle of the forehead to the proportions of the body, I wanted to explore the ways that these physiognomic misconceptions found their way into works of art, the academy, and by extension, the museum throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
I hoped my research might help me to better understand how historical models of bias and discrimination continue in resurface in contemporary culture — from police shootings and racial profiling to attitudes about immigration, gender equity, and other aspects of human difference. The resulting book, included sculptural depictions of the human form that were taken in a number of museum collections as well as a number of art historical pairings, groupings, and in situ documentation of the museums I had photographed in. It was a conceptual proposition that continues to inform both my research and my teaching. I was particularly interested in one of the first museological display on human “cultures” which played an essential role in the history of racial formation, and racial display, and was organized by the Smithsonian Institution for the 1915-1916 California-Panama Exposition in Balboa Park in San Diego.
In 2014, I went to the Smithsonian Institution to trace this idea even further, by a new project that would eventually become part of the 2018 exhibition, Unseen: Our past in a new light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar, at the National Portrait Gallery, in which, among other projects, I photographed sculptural depictions of Native American and First Nations people in our National museums in D.C.
In 2018 the project took another turn, when after photographing over 100 objects in the LACMA collection, they began to melt and transform in constellations, or clusters of works, often reflecting on aspects of the collection and even of the art historical categories themselves.
To learn more about “Unseen” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
To learn more about the Constellation series
To read an excerpt from Profiled (2011)