As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Christian Patterson discusses the re-release of Redheaded Peckerwood, comparisons to Truman Capote, and photographic secret codes.
After much anticipation, the third edition of Redheaded Peckerwood (MACK, 2011)—Christian Patterson’s widely lauded monograph—is finally available. The self-taught artist, who worked for William Eggleston in the early to mid-2000s, produced his first monograph, Sound Affects, in 2008, which pays homage to Memphis, Tennessee’s music culture.
Redheaded Peckerwood is the culmination of Patterson’s five-year study of the murder spree that Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate committed through Nebraska and Wyoming in 1957 into 1958. It is a multi-faceted body of work that includes not just photographs, but actual pieces of evidence from the crimes, re-worked to fit into Patterson’s new narrative.
After hearing him speak in late 2012 as part of the International Center of Photography’s lecture series, I was even more intrigued about the process of creating Redheaded Peckerwood, which has come to define Patterson’s style. When I met with him in his Brooklyn studio, he was editing the photographs he had shot on a recent trip back to his hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin for a small-run book he’s working on as a reprieve before tackling his next big project.
Jacob Pastrovich How did you end up coming to New York from Wisconsin?
Christian Patterson I had a camera for a while, but I didn’t become interested in photography until after I moved to New York. I didn’t study art, but I was in a student organization in college that involved coming to New York once a year and like many people, I was very excited and blown away by the city and each year I came back I became more comfortable. When I came here, I had no idea I’d be doing some of the things I did or some of the things I’m doing now. I was offered a job in a completely different line of work and industry but that brought me here initially, and when I got here I began exploring the city, wanting to get the know it more, bringing my camera along, inevitably popping in and out of galleries, museums, and bookstores and seeing work that inspired me to try to make better pictures. It turned into an obsession.
JP What kind of stuff were you shooting early on?
CP Typical stuff. My Nikon F2—which I still have—was my first nice camera. I was shooting the same things that attract many young photographers: detritus, signage, and I remember going down to Coney Island every once in a while to make pictures there because it’s such a spectacle. That kind of stuff—taking road trips, taking Route 66, driving to California, sort of cliché things.
JP Where would you say you felt things change for you?
CP It was a very gradual, very organic process. It’s difficult for me to give specifics but the one experience I always remember is going to St. Mark’s Bookshop in 1999 or 2000 and seeing my first William Eggleston book.
JP What do you think it is about Eggleston that people really latch onto? A lot of people point to him as a major influence and that’s no mistake, it’s certainly a great thing. But what was it that struck you about his work, even before you were able to work with him?
CP As I got to know his work, I began to see his very unique and personal approach, aesthetic, and style. I see elements of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Walker Evans in Bill’s work, he has a very pointed, very courageous way of looking. He takes risks visually and there’s also a sense of humor and wryness, and an almost gothic nature to his work that just comes from living and making work in the South. There’s a darkness to it as well. Then of course the obvious thing being color—I love color. There’s a certain sense of familiarity and nostalgia in the colors of work he created in the 1970s. That was probably the attraction for me.
It’s interesting that younger people today, people who didn’t grow up in the ’70s, can still see something in his work. There’s much more to it than the element of nostalgia, though.
JP Even if no one knew that you worked for Eggleston, or that you were even interested in his work, they could still draw the comparison just because of the vividness of the color in your work, the attention you pay to it, and the importance it plays in many of your photographs. Aside from working with him, what made you decide that you wanted to pay attention to color?
CP I think everyone has certain visual compulsions and color was just something that attracted me. It wasn’t a premeditated decision, it just felt right.
JP In looking at your photographs and the richness that is given to them by their use of color, it doesn’t seem like it could be coincidence that color plays such an important role for you. When you shoot, are you looking for certain colors or how you can strategically use them?
CP I’m just attracted to it. It catches my eye and pulls me in like a moth to a flame. I might see something out of the corner of my eye and walk over and investigate or make a picture. As I begin to develop a group of pictures, I’m always mentally editing my work; remembering the pictures I’ve made and recognizing and creating relationships between images.
JP Do you ever shoot with a particular photo in mind, looking for something to go along with it, and when you actually go back to that the original photo, realize you’ve remembered it differently?
CP Only in a very subtle way. Then of course there’s an element of control you can exert in the post-production stage, so I might tweak colors to bring them a little bit closer. When I’m editing or sequencing for a book, I’m very conscious of a color palette by putting together sequences within the book that—for the viewers, whether they’re conscious of it or not—I think develop a feel for the work … . It’s not that I’m just interested in strong colors, but that I’m interested in the consistency of strong color and developing a color palette within a body of work. With Redheaded Peckerwood, there are types of colors that re-occur or subtle variations on certain colors that serve to bring the work together.
JP Another thing that stands out in your work is the use of signifiers. In Sound Affects, the one photograph that sticks in my mind is the stovetop with the four gas burners on and the Bible verse from the Book of Revelation. As the viewer, if you’re attuned to signs and signals, I think you can find a lot meaning in your photographs.
CP I do like photographs by other artists where there is a code in the image that you need to discover, either in the first or second reading of the image. It’s funny about that image of the stovetop—at the time I was aware that there was this Bible verse in the sign hanging over the stovetop but I had no idea what it said. [Revelation 21:8 “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”]
I really don’t know the Bible that well. I understand what the Book of Revelation deals with, but I had no idea that that specific verse dealt with this lake of fire and fortunately that was a coincidence.
With Redheaded Peckerwood—just due to the nature of the work, the fact that it’s based on this true crime story—the work is a little bit, more challenging. It doesn’t necessarily offer easy entry but it worked well with that story and the idea of creating clues or providing evidence.
JP Do you ever want people to read a photograph a certain way?
CP There are aspects of my work that I’m always aware of that I don’t expect the reader to be aware of necessarily. There are things you do in your editing or sequencing, for example I might have an image of a house of cards followed by an image of a house falling down. That’s something that’s a bit more obvious and I do want people to make that connection. I won’t always juxtapose two similar pieces of imagery side by side though.
JP That’s too easy.
CP But I might place them near each other. It’s fun to hint at these somewhat tenuous connections and leave them out there for people like a trail of breadcrumbs for them to pick up.
JP You’ve made it clear that Redheaded Peckerwood, is based on the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. When you were first conceptualizing this work, did you ever think to hide that connection?
CP The word didactic hung over my head as I was making this work. I didn’t want to direct people too much. I suppose that thought crossed my mind but as I began to do some detective work and uncover materials that were so much a part of their real story, I felt just as excited about sharing those discoveries as I do about sharing my own original work.
JP I think that you’ve dissociated them enough, to the point where nothing in the book is obvious.
CP The funny thing about this project is that the crime took place many years ago, and the case has already been solved. In theory there’s so much mystery left, but through the process of digging into the story and trying to reconstruct it visually, there was only so much I could do. I could only be so literal working 50 years later. I was forced to deal with this amount of distance and space and I began to see how those spaces and holes bring back mystery into my work. One of the great things about art in general is that it’s an exchange. If the viewer can’t bring something into the work then that exchange just isn’t there anymore.
JP At any point did you ever think about Truman Capote and In Cold Blood—you know, following a murder mystery, except “ex post facto”?
CP Of course I thought about it.
JP Even though Capote had first-hand access to his two murderers and you didn’t?
CP It’s very much the same kind of process. He was a writer and I’m an artist. I didn’t have the same kind of access but I did have access to everything that they ever said about the murders. I think I probably had far more material to work with than Capote ever did. I always say the Starkweather and Fugate story is much more tragic and strange than the Clutter murders. It involved these two teenagers and there were a lot of different themes in terms of teenage angst and love. I do suppose there was a love story or the hint of a love story in Capote’s book, but in the form of the dynamic between the two killers. It was also rumored that Capote himself had a romantic interest in one of the two murderers, I think Perry Smith.
JP If I could go back in time to where you were just beginning to make this book, and asked you what your intentions were with this work, what would you have said?
CP In the beginning I was setting out to do something very, very easy. I initially thought that I would just follow the path that these two kids had taken and make pictures along the way.
JP To use their story as a loose framework and see where it took you?
CP Yes, a roadmap, a framework, and I did that originally but there were so many things that were missing and so many holes that I had to dig into the archive. That’s what led me in this whole new direction. Not only did the process of making new work take me to new places, but just the fact that I spent five years working on this project meant that the things I was exposed to and my ideas and inspiration as an artist changed so much over that time. I feel very fortunate to not have rushed through this, to have taken my time. I feel like I came out on the other end a completely changed person.
JP The research you put into this project, was it a result of going with the flow, or do you just like incorporating research into your practice? Would you say it’s going to continue on with the next project you do?
CP It’s definitely in my nature to enjoy that type of process. I am a very analytical, obsessive person. I like to be organized, but of course we’re sitting in my studio and there’s stuff everywhere.
JP But it’s organized chaos.
CP In my next big project, the subject matter is completely different but the approach is very much the same. I’ll continue to treat a specific place or thing as an archive—much like I did with the source material in Redheaded Peckerwood—even though it might not be an archive in and of itself. Photographs will continue to be at the heart of the work but I will continue to use, manipulate and transform found objects or just completely manufacture the materials and even the narrative.
JP You learned how to paint signs and made some based on things people said during the trials or specific evidence from the case. What got you into making these objects? Was it something to get your mind off of photographs?
CP I think it was having ideas in my head that I couldn’t execute photographically and feeling the need to fill in some of the holes. I need both the right amount of material and right amount of empty space. The signs started with an old police photograph of a gas station where Starkweather committed his first murder. Outside the gas station one sign said “Fruitcake 98¢” and the other said, “Ask for Ethyl.” The fruitcake sign appealed to me because it’s kind of kooky and funny but it’s also a reflection of the time of year and the time period based on how much things cost. As for the “Ask for Ethyl” one, it’s a reference to the gas station and the idea of traveling by car.
JP It’s almost like you’re Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks trying to find meaning outside of the literal. “Ask for Ethyl” makes me think you’re knocking at a door and it’s the secret passcode.
CP I guess you could think of it that way, too. Most of the signs have more to do with words and phrases uttered by characters in the story or from things teenagers said from that time period like “drop dead twice” or “cool” or “daddio” or “kookie.” But I take that as a compliment, I’m a big Twin Peaks and David Lynch fan— I’m sure you can see that in some of my work. I’m not quite as metaphysical or clairvoyant as Dale Cooper, though.
JP I don’t think anybody is.
Prior to this did you ever find yourself attracted to detective work or find yourself chasing stories?
CP No. Like many people, I do enjoy a good mystery, but I don’t read mystery novels and I don’t watch mystery television shows, in fact, I hate most of them, especially all of that CSI, ripped from the headlines bullshit. It just seems too exploitative. I’m not the kind of person that’s interested in murder or serial killers or blood and guts or anything like that. For me, it all started with seeing Badlands which is just a really beautiful film, visually. That’s what initially brought me to the story of Starkweather and Fugate. Once I began to go out into this landscape where I had never been before and then finally digging into the archive— that really hooked me. I was always interested in the story but my interests over time drifted more into the process than the story itself. What kept me going was finding new material and finding new ways to work with it. I guess that’s part of the reason why I’m looking forward to making this next work. I think people will see the similarity of the process but it’s going to seem more like it’s coming out of left field because it’s a completely different type of subject.
JP Do you want to say anything about the subject matter at all?
CP No, I can’t, it’s too soon. It’s all there conceptually and I’m making good progress with the research, but I haven’t really begun making the work in earnest.
Jacob Pastrovich is a writer and photographer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is a New Media Associate at powerHouse Books and the Assistant Director at the New York Photo Festival.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.