By CHRISTIAN PATTERSON and LUC SANTE
September 8, 2012
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A boy, a girl, a car, and a gun. The formula lies deep in American mythology. Imagine the appeal: you and your love object are desperadoes on the run, death the only possible outcome. It’s a suicide mission, the sort of fantasy that emerges when people are trapped. To go on the run is to chase the dragon of some other life, in full knowledge of the futility of the effort and the inevitability of the end. With sex, speed and ballistics stirred together, you simply have to accept that you will explode.
The formula was already traditional by the time Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate hit the road in 1958. Its principles were established by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow before they were gunned down in 1934. They were accomplices, not a couple, but they were married in blood — Bonnie took 23 bullets and Clyde 25. The cultural echoes began soon: Edward Anderson’s novel “Thieves Like Us” and Fritz Lang’s film “You Only Live Once,” both 1937. After the war, Mr. Anderson’s novel was filmed by Nicholas Ray as “They Live by Night” (1949) and Joseph H. Lewis made “Gun Crazy” (1950), another variation on the theme.
Charles Starkweather needed only to have been alive in the 1950s to have absorbed this legacy. Bullied throughout his childhood and adolescence, he had the rage of the beaten-down, a suicidal rage that might have gotten him killed before he ever went on the rampage. Mr. Starkweather killed Robert Colvert, a gas station attendant, in Lincoln, Neb., on Dec. 1, 1957. On Jan. 21, 1958, he killed his young girlfriend’s mother, stepfather and 2-year-old sister. Then he killed August Meyer, a family friend; Robert Jensen and Carol King, who had offered the couple a ride; C. L. and Clara Ward and their maid, Lillian Fencl, whose house he invaded at random. Fleeing Nebraska, the two drove to Douglas, Wyo., where Mr. Starkweather killed Merle Collison, asleep in his car. They were captured almost immediately. Miss Fugate, 15, was sentenced to life in November 1958 (she was paroled in 1976). Mr. Starkweather, 20, died in the electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary the following June.
In his book “Redheaded Peckerwood,” Christian Patterson situates the actions of Mr. Starkweather and Miss Fugate in their time and place. He followed their trail, seeking out material remnants of their lives and actions. His photographs are of actual settings, actual artifacts, symbolic landscapes and metonymic objects; there are also archival photos and reproductions of documents. Mr. Patterson is attempting something that hasn’t been done much: subjective documentary photography of the historical past. This requires that pictures stick close to the physical details while remaining ambiguous; each of the pictures, no matter how innocuous its contents may be, is unsettling and anxiety-producing. The accumulation thrusts the viewer into the emotional center of the story, in a way you could call novelistic. It’s a disturbingly beautiful narrative about unfathomable violence and its place on the land.