Object Lessons: A Conversation with Christian Patterson
June 24, 2013 | by Rebecca Bengal
Sissy Spacek in Badlands, 1973. By permission of Criterion Collection.
Lovers on the run tend to travel light. Generally speaking, in our collective imagination, accoutrements tend to be limited to car (probably stolen), gun (also stolen), clothes on their backs. Yet Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate (captured in 1958 after a violent shooting spree in Nebraska and Wyoming that left eleven dead) become legend in part by leaving behind a physical trail. Of the multiple films inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate killings, Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands (newly released by the Criterion Collection), is the one that—even as it takes dramatic liberties—most explicitly focuses on these tangible objects. Kit and Holly (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) cart along a birdcage, a copy of Kon-Tiki, and a Maxfield Parrish painting; the film’s art director, Jack Fisk, filled one character’s house with $100 worth of random pieces—a jar of black widows, a giant ball of twine—he’d bought from the relatives of a dead man. Just prior to their capture, Kit buries a few of their belongings, described in deadpan voice-over: “He said no one else would know where we put ’em, and that we’d come back some day, maybe, and they’d still be sitting here just the same, but we’d be different, and if we never got back, well, somebody might dig ’em up a thousand years from now and wouldn’t they wonder.”
Nearly forty years later, Christian Patterson’s 2011 book of photographs, Redheaded Peckerwood, continues down a similar path. Already in its third edition, with a thoughtful introduction by Luc Sante and curator Karen Irvine, Patterson’s is a work that defies the easy definition of photo book, approaching as it does the Starkweather narrative from a number of vantage points: newspaper clippings, interviews, ephemera. The photographs of bits of evidence, or of things belonging to the killers and victim—a hood ornament from the getaway car, the teenage Fugate’s stuffed toy poodle—have the aura of a saint’s relics. Tucked into the binding of the book are more souvenirs, reproductions of documents related to Starkweather (a store receipt with a poem printed on its reverse side; a typed list of dirty aphorisms). Even those things that are not directly related to Starkweather and Fugate take on the air of authenticity; the effect of seeing all these effects, in the context of the photographer’s present-day mapping of their journey, is transcendent and shocking, the objects themselves acting as witnesses.
What struck you most about Badlands when you first saw the film?
I was taken with the film in every way. Visually, it was just so damn beautiful, with its big, painterly skies and endless, romantic landscapes. And thematically, well … it was one hell of a crazy story. Sheen and Spacek were great too. It’s a great film.
What were some of the first pictures you made that appear in the book? And when you arrived in Nebraska, what were some of your early impressions?
House at Night and Ray of Light stand out in my mind. The former is the first of my photographs that appears in Redheaded Peckerwood and the latter is one of the last.
This story is quite well documented, and parts of it are well preserved in these various archives. But after all of my research, I felt that there was still plenty of room for me to step into this story, to attempt to reconstruct, then deconstruct, and ultimately fragment it. A new vision for the work began to form in my head—the idea of presenting this true crime story through a mix of photographs, documents, and objects, challenging the viewer to sift through the information, to decipher the visual clues—to deal with the crime story in a similar way an investigator or researcher would.
House at Night, 2007
How did those you approached in the course of your research respond?
The Starkweather-Fugate story is one of the biggest news stories in the history of Nebraska. There, the story is one of those events like the Kennedy assassination—anyone who was alive at the time remembers exactly what they were doing when the story first broke, and they remember that week of terror very clearly. Lincoln, Nebraska, is a relatively small city and Nebraska is a sparsely populated state.
For all of these reasons, it’s not hard to find people who have very personal connections to the story—family members of the killers and their victims, people who worked for the newspaper or police department, or who were somehow involved in the eventual trial. There’s still a lot of raw emotion surrounding the story. Some people are very eager to share their stories. Other people just want it all to go away.
I was also able to find people in the possession of various personal objects outside official archives—photo booth portraits of Caril Ann, Charlie’s cowboy boots, and even the car they drove as they fled Lincoln for Washington State, among other things. The people who now own these things were initially cautious about sharing them, but once I was able to explain my intentions, they shared them enthusiastically.
Map of Lincoln (Erased), 2010
Objects related to killers, whether actual evidence or simply things they touched, weirdly take on the quality of relics, and they certainly do inBadlands, from the things Kit and Holly carry with them on their journey to the comb and lighter that Kit, in his moment of celebrity, gives away like party favors or souvenirs to the officers after his capture. In your book, without pointing out what is “authentic” and what is not, you depict both actual ephemera and places related to Fugate and Starkweather, as well as things that look like they might have been theirs, or touched by them. What was your thinking behind the ephemera you chose to photograph and that which you include, in reproduction form, in the book?
As I said, I researched the story intensely. I read every book I could get my hands on and took note of anything of interest or potential. I began with factual information—dates, times, and places of the crimes, and every other known location involved in the story. But I also included many random ideas—long lists of visual ideas, objects, random words and phrases, anything that painted a picture in my mind.
Two of my favorite scenes in Badlands involve the objects that Kit and Holly carry with them—the scene where they bury a metal bucket containing some of these things and launch a red balloon, and the scene towards the end of the film when Kit is on the run alone, stops at a gas station and opens up a suitcase from the car. We catch a glimpse of clothes, cigarettes, and a magnifying glass.
My friend Luc Sante says murder charges everything it touches, and he’s right. I’m fascinated with the idea of the object as relic or talisman—an object taking on significance as a result of something other than itself.
Click here to read the entire interview.
Text courtesy of the Paris Review Daily.