Filtering by Tag: Christian Patterson

L.A.Times Review for Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood at ROSEGALLERY

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By Leah Ollman

July 18, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

Christian Patterson on the Tenuousness of Knowing

All photographs serve as evidence, but not necessarily in support of the most obvious questions put to them.

Often they seem more like pointers than fixed points, arrows extended in multiple directions. Front-loaded with credibility, though, photographs bear a weighty load of expectations, some reasonable, many not. As filmmaker Errol Morris has written, "Photographs attract false beliefs the way flypaper attracts flies."

"Redheaded Peckerwood" (2005-11), a potent, time-release project by Christian Patterson, is based on a specific incident, the 1958 murder of 10 people, including relatives and friends, by Charles Starkweather, 19, and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, 14.

Their killing spree in Nebraska and capture three days later in Wyoming has spurred several films (most notably "Badlands") as well as a Bruce Springsteen song.

Patterson's take, now at Rose Gallery, is a radical redefinition of the documentary photo-essay as fragmentary, episodic, speculative, unanchored to the time and facts of the presumptive main event. It centers less on information about the particular crimes committed by the teenagers than on knowledge itself as a tenuous prospect.

The show and its accompanying book keenly meditate, through photographs and assorted other objects, on extrapolation, projection, fabrication and imagination as the raw ingredients of visual perception.

The images borrow from familiar idioms. There is a small black-and-white archival news shot of Fugate in custody, grasped by her forearm, teary and defiant. There is a crisp, color, studio-style still life of a Zippo lighter, full-flame. There is a large, Eggleston-like photograph of a rumpled bed, its sheets and pillow a sallow brown.

And there are word paintings, a la Ruscha and Baldessari, lettered like commercial signage: "Helluva Mess," "Fruit Cake 98¢" and stacked in a column,"Drop Dead Drop Dead." There are also sheets of heavy paper stock that have been blasted by a shotgun, leaving ash-rimmed holes.

Every image is trailed by a story, or at least bits of one -- details related to the killings and their aftermath, or to Patterson's own endeavor to piece the tale together and yet affirm its provocative value as fragments that will be assembled in different order and with different emphasis in every viewer/reader's mind.

The work "... From Shinola" is one such glimpse. The photograph shows a bottle of black shoe polish tipped and spilled, a reference to the dye that the redheaded Starkweather used to disguise himself while on the run. The liquid seeps out of the bottle in an inky, calligraphic spread, much like a Rorschach test  image that in itself means nothing but takes on whatever significance is projected onto it.

And the title's snippet of the old colloquial expression reminds us that with a random inkblot, as with Patterson's pictures and, by extension, nearly every photographic image, we don't know the difference between fact and fake, art and artifact, what we see and what we know.

ROSEGALLERY, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-8440, through Aug. 3. Closed Sunday and Monday.

artdaily: Christian Patterson at ROSEGALLERY

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Christian Patterson's groundbreaking series, Redheaded Peckerwood on view at ROSEGALLERY

Day of Terror, 2010

SANTA MONICA, CA.- ROSEGALLERY announces the American debut of 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, Christian Patterson's groundbreaking series, Redheaded Peckerwood. Photographs, objects and historical ephemera is on view June 29th through August 3, 2013.

Redheaded Peckerwood is Christian Patterson's second major body of photographs and the subject of his highly acclaimed monograph, published by MACK in 2011. The book has been called an "instant classic" and was named one of the best books of the year by Art in America, the New York Times, TIME and the Guardian among many others. Last year the book was awarded the prestigious Recontres d'Arles Author Book Award and it is currently in its third printing.

Redheaded Peckerwood is a work with a tragic underlying narrative - the story of 19 year old Charles Starkweather and 14 year old Caril Ann Fugate who murdered ten people, including Fugate's family, during a killing spree across Nebraska to their point of capture in Douglas, Wyoming. The images record places and objects central to the story, depict ideas inspired by it, and capture other moments and discoveries along the way.

Christian Patterson does not attempt to piece together the precise circumstances of the murders, or any over-arching narrative; rather, he creates images that speak to the themes he considers fundamental to the story - angst, love, rebellion, escape, violence, and loss of innocence. He borrows certain points freely and boldly mixes them with fictional elements, using photography as his primary tool.

Redheaded Peckerwood utilizes and plays with an archive of material, deliberately mixing fact and fiction, past and present, myth and reality as it presents, expands and re-presents the various facts and theories surrounding this story. From a technical perspective, the photographs incorporate and reference the techniques of photojournalism, forensic photography, image appropriation, reenactment, documentary, and landscape photography. On a conceptual level, they deal with a charged landscape and play with photographic representation and truth as Patterson deconstructs the pre-existing narrative.

While photographs are the heart of this work, the artist has combined them with documents and objects belonging to the killers and their victims - a map, poem, confession letter, stuffed animal, and hood ornament - which will be exhibited alongside his photographic prints.

Christian Patterson was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His work is found in the permanent collections of The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; The New Orleans Museum of Art; and the Light Work Collection, Syracuse to name a few. Private collections including the Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Photography Collection; The Berman Photography Collection; and the collection of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser. This will be Patterson's first solo exhibition at ROSEGALLERY. The gallery is pleased to be the artist's exclusive U.S. representation.

Text courtesy of

Artweek.LA: Christian Patterson at ROSEGALLERY

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Christian Patterson: Redheaded Peckerwood

Sat, Jun 22, 2013

Named one of the best books of the year, Redheaded Peckerwood is Christian Patterson’s second major body of photographs and the subject of his highly acclaimed monograph. Opens June 29 at RoseGallery.

Redheaded Peckerwood is a work with a tragic underlying narrative – the story of 19 year old Charles Starkweather and 14 year old Caril Ann Fugate who murdered ten people, including Fugate’s family, during a killing spree across Nebraska to their point of capture in Douglas, Wyoming. The images record places and objects central to the story, depict ideas inspired by it, and capture other moments and discoveries along the way.

Christian Patterson does not attempt to piece together the precise circumstances of the murders, or any over-arching narrative; rather, he creates images that speak to the themes he considers fundamental to the story – angst, love, rebellion, escape, violence, and loss of innocence. He borrows certain points freely and boldly mixes them with fictional elements, using photography as his primary tool.

Redheaded Peckerwood utilizes and plays with an archive of material, deliberately mixing fact and fiction, past and present, myth and reality as it presents, expands and re‐presents the various facts and theories surrounding this story. From a technical perspective, the photographs incorporate and reference the techniques of photojournalism, forensic photography, image appropriation, reenactment, documentary, and landscape photography. On a conceptual level, they deal with a charged landscape and play with photographic representation and truth as Patterson deconstructs the pre‐existing narrative.

While photographs are the heart of this work, the artist has combined them with documents and objects belonging to the killers and their victims—a map, poem, confession letter, stuffed animal, and hood ornament—which will be exhibited alongside his photographic prints.

The book has been called an “instant classic” and was named one of the best books of the year by Art in America, the New York Times, TIME and the Guardian among many others. Last year the book was awarded the prestigious Recontres d'Arles Author Book Award and it is currently in its third printing.

Christian Patterson was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His work is found in the permanent collections of The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; The New Orleans Museum of Art; and the Light Work Collection, Syracuse to name a few. Private collections including the Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Photography Collection; The Berman Photography Collection; and the collection of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser. This will be Patterson’s first solo exhibition at ROSEGALLERY. The gallery is pleased to be the artist’s exclusive U.S. representation.

Text courtesy of Artweek.LA

The Paris Review Daily: Christian Patterson Interview

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Object Lessons: A Conversation with Christian Patterson

June 24, 2013 | by 

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.

Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood Third Edition

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Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood is one of the publications which defines the recent era of photobook publishing. In this the third edition, further improvements, changes and additions have been made by the author to continue his evolution of the project, including an altered sequence incorporating new images, additional pages and a separate facsimile postcard. A few signed first edition copies are still available.

Text and image courtesy of MACK

Christian Patterson—Photo District News

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Breakout Book of the Year: Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood

In his highly acclaimed book Redheaded Peckerwood, Christian Patterson utilized different photographic styles and historical images and documents to create a psuedo-history of a killing spree.

Understanding how and why certain photographers and certain bodies of work manage to stick in our collective consciousness is a challenge in today’s what’s-next culture. Photographers now have more ways to get their work seen, but it’s also harder than ever to know what kind of exposure is most likely to help them achieve their goals. So what makes a photographer’s style or a body of work stick in people’s minds? How does their audience grow and expand? How does an idea in the head of a photographer spawn ideas in the heads of viewers and, eventually, make a mark on the medium?

In an effort to answer these questions we looked at six photographers and projects that seemed to be on everyone’s mind this year, and considered how and why. We also spoke with a handful of people—from editors to curators to branding experts—to find out how they discovered the projects they’ve championed. Below, we speak with Christian Patterson about his bookRedheaded Peckerwood.

The 1,500-copy first edition of Christian Patterson’s book Redheaded Peckerwoodpublished by MACK, sold out in January 2012, roughly two months after it debuted at Paris Photo in November 2011. A photographic retelling of the story of a two-month, multi-state killing spree undertaken by Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old accomplice, Caril Ann Fugate, in 1958, the heavily researched book combines Patterson’s original photographs with historical documents and images, creating a subjective pseudo-history that plumbs the intersection of fiction and non-fiction storytelling.

Almost immediately after its publication, the book was included on the 2011 “best book” lists of several critics, noted collectors and other photography book experts. Patterson has since been busy with exhibitions and talks, andRedheaded Peckerwood has received numerous plaudits as well as a Rencontres d’Arles Author Book Award. Media outlets as diverse as The New York TimesVogue Hommes and American Public Media’s “The Story” program, among many others, have also featured it this year.

There is little doubt that Redheaded Peckerwood is an accomplished work of art—MACK books publisher Michael Mack compares it to Michael Schmidt’s U-NI-TY, Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility and Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi in its ability to carry the book form “into a new space.” But Patterson also believes other major factors have contributed to the book’s success.

The true crime subject matter and the themes of “teenage angst and love and confusion and escape and violence and the loss of innocence” have fascinated and engaged people, Patterson says. And building awareness of the project among friends and colleagues has also played a major role.

Mack first saw the work in 2010 when a mutual friend recommended it to him. Patterson showed Mack an artist’s book version of the project, which he’d produced in an edition of ten, and sold and showed to people to gin up interest for the project. Mack, who receives a lot of recommendations—only a small number of which pan out—knew immediately that he wanted to publish the book. “There was a certainty in terms of his editing,” Mack says. “The story that he wanted to tell was there and clearly visible through the sequence, through the structure and through the visual elements.”

Patterson shared work from the project on his website and through social media as it was in progress. He also made and shared videos and photographs of his creation of the artist’s books, showing his network the printing and binding process. The artist’s books were included in book exhibitions and sold by Robert Morat Galerie at AIPAD in 2011. When he went on press as MACK printed the trade edition of the book, he documented and shared that experience as well.

A mutual friend was also responsible for introducing Patterson and his project to writer Luc Sante, who wrote one of two essays that accompany the book. “Luc was really great, very responsive, and was on board long before I had someone to publish the book,” Patterson recalls.

Karen Irvine, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, wrote the other essay. Patterson connected with her early in his work on the project through Chicago-based artist friends who knew Irvine. When he would travel to Nebraska—where Starkweather and Fugate began the two-month killing spree that would end in Wyoming—to work, he stopped a couple of times in Chicago to talk with Irvine about the in-progress project. “She knew the work very well before the book was completed and I just made a point of continuing to share it with her,” Patterson recalls. “As it turned out, she was putting together an exhibition that dealt with crime, so this work turned out to be a perfect fit.” Some of the Redheaded Peckerwood work appeared in “Crime Unseen” at MoCP in October 2011.

Patterson had come to know Jeffrey Henson Scales, the photography editor ofThe New York Times’s Sunday Review section, while he was working for William Eggleston as an archivist. Patterson told Scales about Redheaded Peckerwood, and in September of this year, Scales published the work in the Sunday Review, which Scales says was a bit of a risk because of the highly conceptual nature of the book and the difficulty of representing the project using a limited number of images. “We got a lot of positive response, which was refreshing because that one was very different,” Scales notes.

Stories in places like The New York Times have continued to increase awareness for the book, the second edition of which was released in April 2012. “Everything started in the photography world and it has slowly expanded from there,” Patterson explains. “I’ve been invited to speak to classes that are not photography classes. They’re painting classes, philosophy classes, anthropology classes, so there are other people in other worlds that seem to be taking an interest in the book.”

The success of the book notwithstanding, Patterson believes it’s fair to callRedheaded Peckerwood a breakthrough for him as an artist. “There are certain people who knew of me or knew of my earlier work, but I feel like I have grown and matured as an artist and reached a new level with this work,” Patterson says.

“Coming from somebody who wasn’t known prior to the publication of this book, it’s been a great success by people seeing it, looking at it, reading it and realizing, ‘Wow this is really something quite special,’” Mack says. “That’s down to his work and the way that he’s seen it.

Text courtesy of Photo District News

The New York Times—Christian Patterson and Luc Sante

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Violence, Dissected

September 8, 2012
For full slideshow, click here.

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.


Christian Patterson is a photographer who lives in Brooklyn and whose work is exhibited internationally. Luc Sante is an author who teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.

Text and image courtesy of The New York Times

Christian Patterson — The Guardian

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Christian Patterson goes on the trail of America's natural born killers

The Brooklyn photographer's latest book, Redheaded Peckerwood, is strange and beautiful despite its subject – an epic killing spree that has haunted America since 1958

Sean O'Hagan

Scene of the crime ... Burned-out Room, an image from Christian Patterson's photobook Redhead Peckerwood (2011).

In January 1958, Charles Starkweather, a 20 year-old from Lincoln in Nebraska, and Caril Fugate, his 14-year-old girlfriend, embarked on a two-month killing spree that would result in the deaths of 10 people. Starkweather's first victims were Fugate's mother, stepfather and two-year-old sister. The couple hid the bodies, then holed up in Fugate's family home, discouraging visitors with a note pinned to the door that read: "Stay a Way Every Body is sick with the Flue."

When a relative grew suspicious and called the police, the couple fled – so beginning a deadly adventure that by turns mesmerised and appalled the American media and public. They were eventually captured in Douglas, Wyoming. Starkweather went to the electric chair in 1959 and Fugate began an 18-year sentence in Nebraska Correctional Centre for Women. She now lives in Michigan under an assumed name, and has never remarried, nor spoken of Starkweather or her part in the killings.

Long after the event, the couple's exploits continue to capture the American imagination. In 1973, Terrence Malick directed the disturbingly powerful Badlands, his debut feature film based on the murders and starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. In 1994, amid much controversy over its gratuitous violence, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers was released, another take on the same dark legend. In 1982, Bruce Springsteen released his album Nebraska, the title song of which begins: "Saw her standing on her front lawn / Just a-twirlin' her baton / Me and her went for a ride, sir, and 10 innocent people died / From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, with a sawn-off .4-10 on my lap / To the badlands of Wyoming, I killed everything in my path."

In 1990, Sonic Youth released Goo, an album with a cover illustration by Raymond Pettibon featuring a cool couple in a car with the words: "I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash. Within a week, we killed our parents and hit the road."

Now comes Redheaded Peckerwood, a strange and beautiful photobook by Christian Patterson, a young photographer from Brooklyn. (The title refers to a derisory term coined by Southern black people to refer to poor whites from rural neighbourhoods, such as Starkweather and Fugate.) Fifty years after the event, Patterson followed the trail of Starkweather and Fugate across Nebraska and into Wyoming, his magpie eye picking out landscapes, buildings, woods, wastegrounds and darkly suggestive interiors. On the way, he visited the murder sites and the neighbourhoods of the killers and their victims, discovered personal letters and official documents pertaining to the case and trawled the archives of local papers such as the Lincoln Journal Star for first-hand accounts of the trial. He talked to police officers, local people, drifters and strangers he met in bars and coffee houses. The result is a unique photobook-cum-archive, a kind of impressionist visual narrative whose subtext is Patterson's own obsession with the couple and their dark mythology, an obsession that began when he watched Badlands for the first time in 2004.

"In Redheaded Peckerwood," writes Luc Sante in his essay for the book, "Christian Patterson is working out something that hasn't been done much before, if ever: a kind of subjective documentary photography of the historical past. That requires that the individual pictures be true, as close as possible to the physical details as historically established, while remaining ambiguous and unsettling …"

Chilling memento ... Patterson found the couple's stuffed toy at one of the murder sites

In a talk that Patterson gave on the book at Rough Trade East in London a few weeks ago, he spoke of the influence of the 1930s Crime Dossier series of books created by Dennis Wheatley and the art historian JG Links. The books went for an unconventional interactive approach, encouraging the reader to decipher the mystery though a series of clues – letters, documents, photographs – contained in cardboard folders that looked like police files. In Redheaded Peckerwood, the narrative is altogether more postmodern. For instance, some of the settings are actual, others symbolic. An ominous-looking house photographed at night belongs to one of Fugate's neighbours (her family home was demolished decades ago). A grey and ragged stuffed-toy dog is placed against a pink background, its tackiness emphasised. This was the gift Starkweather intended for Fugate – but the store owner, Robert Colvert, refused his credit. Colvert was shot dead by Starkweather on 30 November 1957, seven weeks before he set off on his epic killing spree with Fugate. Patterson found the ragged toy in the remains of one of the murder sites.

"Murder charges everything it touches," writes Sante. "Every blurred photo, scrap of writing, wadded rag and broken comb … things you'd never look at twice in any other context … takes on imminence with its association with violent death." This, then, is a book of testimony and suggestion; a murder mystery that offers no answers, only more clues, possibilities and interpretations. It looks back across the decades at a casually murderous saga that still eludes understanding and continues to fascinate. It brings to mind Springsteen's Nebraska song lyrics, in the voice of Charles Starkweather: "They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

Images and text courtesy of The Guardian

Christian Patterson

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Redheaded Peckerwood and MACK have been awarded the 2012 Recontres d'Arles Author Book Award, which goes to the best author project for a contemporary photography work.


Redheaded Peckerwood has been selected for inclusion in The Photobook: A History, Volume 3, the forthcoming third installment of the seminal study of the major trends and movements that have shaped the photobook genre since the birth of photography, as selected by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr.


The second edition of Redheaded Peckerwood includes a few subtle changes, several notable enhancements and some additional visual content to be discovered. The book can be found at stores carrying MACK books worldwide.


Radio Interview: “Redheaded Peckerwood,” The Story (American Public Media), 22 Jun 2012.

Selected Reviews: Blaustein, Jonathan. “This Week in Photography Books: Christian Patterson,” APhotoEditor, 23 Jun 2012. Azoury, Phillippe. “Obsession Part IX: Le Fait Divers,” Vogue Homme, Mar 2012.


Redheaded PeckerwoodSound Affects (Double solo exhibition) Robert Morat Galerie, Hamburg, Germany, September 8-October 27, 2012

Panel Discussion and Book Signing with Luc Sante and Michael Mack The School of Visual Arts, New York, NY, September 26, 2012 (On the eve of the opening of the 2012 NY Art Book Fair)

Paris Photo Robert Morat Gallery and Rose Gallery will present selections from Redheaded Peckerwood. Grand Palais, Paris, France, November 15-18, 2012

Redheaded Peckerwood Rose Gallery, Santa Monica, CA, February 22-March 23, 2013

Christian Patterson: Conscientious Extended

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A Conversation with Christian Patterson

Joerge Colberg

Christian Patterson, House on Fire, from Redheaded Peckerwood

Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood made it onto so many “best of 2011” lists that it was by far the most popular book last year. A body of amazing depth and sophistication, it is a shining example of what the contemporary photobook can do. There now is a second edition, and I used the occasion to talk with Christian about the book.

Jörg Colberg: How did you first hear of the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate? And I’m curious about how you decided to approach the story photographically? How does one go about something like that?

Christian Patterson: Several years ago, I went to a movie theater and saw Terrance Malick’s film “Badlands.” I was taken by the film — its plot, its score, and most of all its cinematography. The film starred a very young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, and they portrayed Kit and Holly, a dumb, young couple who thought they were in love. In the film, Kit kills Holly’s father, they set out on the road and he kills several other people as they try to run away. It was a crazy story; beautiful, eerie, romantic and tragic.

I researched the film and discovered that Malick’s script was loosely based on the true story of Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old boy from Lincoln, Nebraska who killed his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate’s mother, step-father and baby step-sister in January 1958. The couple then drove across Nebraska, and Starkweather killed seven more people before they were captured as they approached the mountains of Wyoming. I was surprised to learn about this true story that was more prolific, tragic and strange than Malick’s more romanticized film version.

I then researched the story intensely. I read every book I could get my hands on made note of anything of interest. I began with factual information — the dates, times, places and circumstances of the murders. I also made long lists of visual ideas, random words and phrases. I should mention that I posted excerpts of these lists on my website, along with various scouting photographs and outtakes from the project. I thought it would be interesting to share this information, not only as a look into my process, but as a way of inviting viewers to enter the process and decipher some of these enigmatic clues themselves. If viewers read these lists and look at the work, they will find there are connections to be made. The information can be still found here.

I made my first foray into Nebraska in January 2005, during the same time of year when the murders took place. The spree included events in and around Lincoln, and in a few small towns and roadside locations between Lincoln and Douglas, Wyoming, where the couple was eventually captured. I began by using the story as a roadmap — I traced it 500 miles west and retraced it 500 miles east. I ultimately did this five times, during five successive very cold, harsh Januaries, usually working in the field between seven and ten days each year.

In addition to working as a photographer, I had to work as a detective. I searched for traces of the past in the present — places and things of significance to the story; evidence of these events that remained out there in the world. I found things that I never imagined I would find; I even discovered personal belongings and pieces of evidence that were never recovered by the detectives who originally worked the case. All of this came as quite a surprise, and a strange thrill. But still, there was a lot of the story that no longer remained, and it became apparent that I would not be able to simply travel from the scene of one crime to another and document what was there, nearly 50 years later. The project would involve much more than simply connecting the dots; I needed to find a new way of working with this material, conceptually.

Before I finished my first trip and returned home, I visited the archives of the Lincoln Journal Star, the local newspaper that originally covered the story. There, I not only found old newspapers; I also found press releases, news alerts, original press and police photographs and courtroom sketches. I also visited the Nebraska State Historical Society, where some of the physical evidence remains in storage. There, I flipped through Caril Ann Fugate’s photo diary and the contents of one of the victim’s wallets. I also saw crime scene photographs and held the murder weapons. Encountering this material gave me chills, and I began to see how it could complement and inform my photographs.

Digging into the archive was like falling down a rabbit hole; it opened up all possibility, in my mind. I saw how all of these different visual materials worked together to tell a story, and how they related back to what I was doing. It didn’t matter that these things were produced by different sources in different formats or different times. I let go of the old way of thinking about photographic documentation, truth and representation. Suddenly it all looked fluid; everything became the archive, everything became documentation. The only thing that mattered was telling a story visually, using my research and calling on my imagination as needed. Doing this with a well-known, pre-existing true crime story was unusual, I suppose.

JC: There seems to be a lot of hand wringing about the state of photography, about its ability or inability to depict what people like to call reality. Of course, I have no idea to what extent you had that in mind, but I’m curious about this - how did this enter your picture making, and the way you combined these images into Redheaded Peckerwood?

CP: In order to make this work, I had to abandon traditional notions of photographic documentation, truth and representation. Photography has never been reality and it never will be. It’s a two-dimensional representation of reality, ripped off from the real world. It’s not that I’m not interested in reality, or depicting that which exists in reality; it’s just that I’m much more interested in images and ideas. As far as Redheaded Peckerwood is concerned, I think the phrase I used earlier — “after the fact” — has some additional meaning here. All photography is “after the fact.” Other people hold onto the creaky, dusty notion of photographs as some sort of reality; this only increases the potential for complexity through the many different possible readings of work that challenges or contradicts this restrictive perception of what a photograph is or what it can do. I consider this a wonderful gift to me as an artist, or any artist making work that disregards this concern with the real.

JC: I’d like to talk about this a bit more, because I find this very fascinating. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by people’s insistence that photography presents the truth or reality. This does depend a bit on context, of course. In some contexts, photography might indeed represent a facet of reality just big enough to do the job (think of a crime-scene photograph or your passport picture). But in most contexts, a photograph tends to represent all kinds of realities, first and foremost the one the viewer wants to or prefers to see. I understand why that might have some people flustered, but if you think about it it’s such an enormous gift, because it means that photography not only can easily be the most amazing art form, photography also is easily usable: It offers itself to be used.

In your book you seem to be playing with this, by throwing together all this photographic material that, I’m sure, will confuse and maybe even annoy someone expecting the truth (or maybe it’ll be just one big puzzle). I’m curious how you approached this, because depending on how willing you were to grant some photographs the ability to show some sort of truth, while being playful with others, that would determine how you could use them as material. It must be much more fun to play with all the options available if you know how people might react, how people might be rubbed a certain way?

CP: I think this goes back to what I said about fluidity and telling a story visually using imagination. My two primary concerns were telling a story, and doing so visually, utilizing whatever means necessary. As I made this work, I continually consulted and revised my lists of visual ideas, and I allowed my ideas to come from anywhere, as long as they related in some way to some version of the story — even if it was a version that only existed in my own head. The ideas could be based on reported facts from books, newspapers, interviews or court transcripts; from highly interpretive literary or cinematic accounts, or based purely on my own imagination, which of course was also completely interpretive.

In the early going, I held tightly to the story and strived to artfully document whatever places and things were of specific importance and relevance to the story. But there was only so much of this that could be done, and once these things were done, many narrative and visual holes remained in my personal vision for the story. This compelled me to embrace new approaches to telling my version of the story, utilizing whatever means and methods necessary. I didn’t just want to retell the story; I wanted to tell it anew.

I often say that Redheaded Peckerwood is a body of photographs, documents and objects that utilizes a true crime story as a spine. The story continually served as a source of inspiration and ideas, but what really excited me about my work was the expansion of my own artistic practice. Previous to this work, I had only worked as a photographer. And while photographs are the heart of this work, they are complemented and informed by the documents and objects that in many cases were touched by the hands of the killers and their victims. In addition, Redheaded Peckerwood employs a wide variety of photographic techniques and styles — black & white, both appropriated and original; contemporary color, forensic imagery, both real and recreated; work on location — landscapes and interiors; and staged still lifes in the studio.

As I continued my work, the story began to disintegrate, fragment and fall away. It never disappeared completely; it was always there, but its sole function was to serve as a source of raw material with which I could play. I became much more interested in the conceptual side of the work, my process and practice, which expanded beyond the documentary and into more actively interpretive, manipulative realms — appropriation, reenactment, staging, word paintings and even blasting holes in pieces of paper with a shotgun.

I suppose that I gave some consideration to how people might react; this experience pushed my buttons and pulled me in different directions, and I wanted my presentation of the work to do the same for the viewer. Making this work was a new experience for me; it brought a sense of adventure and even a sense of humor at times to the work — take for example the political limericks, the dirty jokes, or some of the titles for some of the work (“Three-Story Rat Trap,” “Shit from Shinola,” “Fruit Cake 98 Cents” and “Let’s All Go Out and Get a Steak”).

Ultimately, I wanted the work to act as a more complex, enigmatic visual crime dossier — a mixed collection of cryptic clues, random facts and fictions that the viewer had to deal with on their own, to some extent. A certain amount of mystery was essential. A little mystery goes a long way. It’s funny, because a certain amount of “unknowing” forces us to form our own interpretations and responses, to fill in the holes ourselves.

JC: There is also a fair amount of archival material in the book. How did you go about deciding what to include, how to mix archival photographs with your own?

CP: I should note that not everything in Redheaded Peckerwood is as it may seem — there are photographs, documents and objects that may appear to come either from the archive or from me when in fact the reverse is true. This is the exception more than the rule, but there are exceptions in all cases. And in all cases, I had a visceral reaction to the material I created, selected and ultimately included in the project.

I approached this project methodically (through my research, note taking, list making and archival digging) but responded to its ongoing development intuitively (through my own image making and continual editing, sequencing and refining of all the material). I kept a mental inventory of my research, my lists, what I found in the archive, and what I was shooting. This was a fairly obsessive, ongoing process, including periods of inactivity, lasting five years. I treated every photograph, document and object as another piece of the puzzle. I wanted everything to work together; I wanted to confuse what was old and what was new, what was archival and what was not, what was authentic to the story or perceived as “real” versus what was simply a beautiful, eerie, sinister or strange image.

There are things about my nature as a person and photographer that relate well to the nature of Redheaded Peckerwood. I often strive to make timeless, or perhaps more appropriately, time-neutral images — images that bear little or no signifying evidence of the time in which they were made. Most of the images in Redheaded Peckerwood are successful in this respect, with a few exceptions. And as the work deals with a story from another time, this seemed necessary. I also feel I’ve always had a certain “forensic” way of seeing. I take pleasure in looking at things in a very intense, concentrated way — a very photographic compulsion. I say all this because I think these traits helped me to establish a fairly consistent aesthetic and feel throughout the book, despite the mix of material. Take for example the color palette — it’s fairly consistent throughout the entire work — the work has its own yellow, its own green.

JC: There is a second edition of your book now (congratulations!), and I saw that you mentioned there would be “Noticeable enhancements. New visual content.” Could you talk about this a little bit?

CP: I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to print a second edition of the book, for a number of reasons. First, I wanted the book to continue to be available. I have nothing against the first edition of the book being a collected or valued object, but I don’t want that to be a barrier to those who wish to access the work. I made the work to share it, not to have it become this unseable thing. Second, I wanted to make a few subtle changes and refinements to the book. And ultimately, when we went on press, we had the opportunity to work on an amazing new printer that made this new printing even stronger than the first.

The cover of the second edition will be subtly darker. I like the idea of the cover image changing with time.

Most significantly, we printed the second edition on a new ten-drum Heidelberg press using a new black ink and a light gloss varnish instead of the matte varnish we used on the first book. I also supplied improved files for a few of the images. I couldn’t believe the difference we were seeing with the new printer, ink and varnish. I’m sure all of these changes will be apparent, especially to anyone comparing the two editions.

Lastly, I revisited the material I acquired from various archives and added some images to the booklet insert, and so now the essays are accompanied by this new visual content.

Again, most of the content- and visual-related changes are subtle, so in that sense the book hasn’t changed all that much. But I’m excited about the improvement in the quality of the printing, which was already quite good, and the opportunity to add a few new touches, like the altered cover and additional images.

JC: In his essay, Luc Sante calls the book “a kind of subjective documentary photography of the historical past.” I’d be interested in your thoughts about that term.

CP: I’ve always felt conflicted about text in photography books. I very rarely read texts or essays; I prefer to have a direct, unmediated visual experience with the work. At the same time, I understand that text can provide context, among other things, and that it can add something to the experience of the work for some people. But with Redheaded Peckerwood, it was extremely important to me that a certain amount of mystery permeated the work and that any text did not detract from that mystery. Certain information could never be discussed or revealed. I’m very fortunate to have had two great essays written for the book. Luc Sante’s essay provides a historical/social context and Karen Irvine’s essay provides an art/conceptual context for the work. Each essay provides and reveals some additional information, but not too much.

I think it’s important to quote the entire sentence that Luc wrote: “InRedheaded Peckerwood Christian Patterson is working out something that hasn’t been done much before, if ever: a kind of subjective documentary photography of the historical past.” Further, he goes on to say thatRedheaded Peckerwood “walks the fine line between fiction and nonfiction.” I think that Luc is referring to the creative license I took with this well-documented pre-existing story that has been the source of inspiration for numerous books, films and movies over the past 50 years. But I think my handling of this material is dramatically different from anything else that’s been done before, and that to me is part of what makes it worthwhile.

I’d also like to direct you to Karen Irvine’s essay, which goes some way in explaining exactly that to which Luc is referring. She explains things much better than I ever could:

“Patterson approaches the archive as a space of negotiation, not authority. Patterson revisits and repackages the past, destabilizing the archive and making it a place of activation and possibility. Through his deft blending of fact, popular cultural elements, and personal vision he seems to be asking, ‘What are the limitations of the archive? What might it conceal?’ Hal Foster has written about artists who mine the archive: ‘the fact that … artists turn the archive from an “excavation site” into a “construction site,” is welcome … it suggests a shift away from a melancholic culture that views the historical as little more than the traumatic.’ In Patterson’s work, the archive is exposed as being incomplete and improvisatory, and this makes way for the implicit, liberating acceptance that human nature is unpredictable and flawed, not only in a tragic way, but in a strange and almost comic one as well. As Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, reportedly once said, ‘Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.’Redheaded Peckerwood is not an artifact of cultural memory. It is an interpretation of history that operates like memory and gives the past life in the present. Patterson mines the archive and injects the past with possibility, making art that is at once both contemporaneous and historical. His refusal to delineate what is real and what is fiction prevents us from mentally shelving the events as part of history. Forget considering them only in a passive, distanced way. We must actively engage with our imaginations and our memories, and in that hazy interior realm where they intersect.”

JC: I suppose we could discuss archives now. Assume you had a complete archive of something — this could be out of a Borges story — would you then have the full story? But what I’m after is something else. I’m more interested in your own role here, your role as the artist, your role as someone who creates what looks and feels like a documentary body of work, but isn’t at the same time. I love the fact that the book is both. As much as I hate using analogies from the natural sciences, the example of a photon, say, being both a wave and a particle at the same time as long as it’s unobserved as either seems relevant here. After all, all documentary work always involves a lot of fiction (history itself is a perfect example: a grandiose piece of fiction, composed entirely of facts), but we don’t want to see it that way. In much the same way, “art photography” is supposed to be fiction only, and of course it often is. But books like Redheaded Peckerwood are more like a photon: It’s both, a documentary (in the strictest sense of the word) and a piece of fiction (again in the strictest sense of the word) — and only when you “observe” it does it fall into one category or the other (it can’t stay in both). That’s where I have a slight problem with what Karen Irvine writes when she talks of “an interpretation of history that operates like memory and gives the past life in the present” - history in the sense of written or compiled history is an interpretation, just like your book is an interpretation of sorts.

Of course, there is a difference between that which historians do and that which you do: Historians are interested only in facts, even though, of course, what they produce is a construct that future historians might just brush aside, for whatever reason (new facts often play less a role than a changed cultural climate). What you do, however, is to do a historian’s job, except you are willing to do it in an artistic way, working with the limitations and possibilities of your medium, while still telling a story. The reason why this interests me so much is because I think it opens up opportunities to engage with the world, opportunities to realize that the word “truth” can have different kinds of meanings, many of them if not being the same then at least equivalent. For writers, we have long accepted this. A nonfiction book and a fiction book about something historical can each tell more or less the same story — and we know how to understand and treat the differences. As Karen Irvine wrote in the case of a novel “we must actively engage with our imaginations and our memories.” But for photography, we haven’t made that step, yet. We’re still stuck with people’s ideas that photography presents the truth or something real or whatever. I’m tempted to think a book likeRedheaded Peckerwood is a perfect example of what can be gained by finally leaving this simplistic approach to photography. It is a true story, and at the same time it is the story you decided to tell (if I did it it would look very different).

What do you think?

CP: I’m not familiar with Borges or his work, but I did find this rather insightful quote from his biographer Edwin Williamson: “His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author’s ability to generate ‘poetic faith’ in his reader.” This, to me, is a beautiful, perfect encapsulation of the way that photography works.

Another “Borgesian” quality is narrative non-linearity. When I first began making this work, I held tightly to the chronological narrative of the story. But as I continued to make work, explore and appropriate the archive, and edit, sequence and refine the material, I also began to freely mix the material. My interests and motivations for doing this were were two-fold. First, I had a visual interest. With photography, the visual element greatly increases the interpretive potential and therefore unavoidably complicates the narrative. Second, I wanted to push the work and its interpretation in unexpected directions. As Williamson said, I had to generate poetic faith in the reader.

I agree with what Karen Irvine wrote about “history that operates like memory,” and I think it agrees with what you said about interpretation, if we acknowledge that memory is largely biased, completely selective and therefore highly interpretive. I’m not sure how to respond to or improve upon everything that you’ve just said — the issues of truth and representation are a problem in photography for many people. But when it comes to most of the photography that I look at or make myself, I’m really most concerned with what lies within — our feeling and imagination.

Image and text courtesy of Conscientious Extended