In 2005, Christian Patterson began a photographic project which brought him from Tennessee to Nebraska multiple times over the course of five years. The subject of his inquiry — the three-day, 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
In 2011, Patterson’s project, titled “Redheaded Peckerwood” was compiled into a monograph. That book won the prestigious 2012 Arles Rencontres Author Book Award and is now in its third edition.
A 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, Patterson will talk about “Redheaded Peckerwood” Thursday at the Embassy Suites as the keynote speaker of the Midwest Society for Photographic Education 2013 Conference.
Earlier this week, Patterson answered some questions about “Redheaded Peckerwood” in an email interview:
Let’s start with the obvious, why did you choose to do your project on Starkweather and Fugate:
“I first became aware of the story when I saw Terrence Malick's film ‘Badlands.’ I was taken with the film in every way — it was visually stunning; its big, painterly skies and endless empty, romantic landscapes really stirred me. And thematically, it was quite an intriguing story. I decided to learn more about the film and soon discovered that it was loosely based on a true crime story that was more prolific, tragic and strange than was depicted in Malick's more romanticized film.
“The story involves so many heavy themes — teenage angst, young love, longing and escape; confusion, panic and fear; violence, and ultimately, the loss of innocence. It also involved the element of travel, across nearly the entire length of the state of Nebraska. And so the story was like a road map, and I began to think that I could follow that map and make photographs along the way.
“I traced the story's path 500 miles west, then 500 miles east. I ultimately did this five times, during five successive very cold, harsh Januaries, usually working 7 to 10 days each time. In addition to being a photographer, I became a sort of detective-in-reverse. I began my work by searching 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, including personal belongings and pieces of evidence that were never recovered by the detectives who worked the case.
“Despite all this, I knew that I would not be able to simply work in a documentary mode, nearly 50 years after-the-fact. I had to find a new way of approaching the story artistically and conceptually. I wanted to do something more challenging and complex; somewhat more open-ended. And importantly, I also wanted to avoid making work that was sensational; I wanted to be more impartial, empathetic and respectful of the story, everyone and everything involved.”
You did many of these photographs during a residencies at Art Farm (Marquette), the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for Art (Nebraska City) and from the Lincoln Arts Council. Can you talk a little about about that?
“During the five years I worked on ‘Redheaded Peckerwood,’ I had brief artist residencies in several different parts of the state. As a photographer, unlike artists who work in other mediums, I tend to do a lot of my work on location, in the field. I didn't make any photographs at the residencies, but they provided me with a sort of "home base" from which I could venture out into the surrounding area, conduct research and make photographs.”
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In looking at the images, some appear to be contemporary shots of the actual locations, some, archival photos from the 1950s, and some recreations/interpretations. I assume that’s by design — perhaps an exploration of history, interpretation, legend, etc.
“Yes, I attempted to reconstruct, then deconstruct and ultimately fragment the story, or turn it inside out. I became interested in 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 story in a similar way that an investigator or researcher would.
“I spent a lot of time researching and digging into various public and private archives, and that process opened up all possibility, in my mind. I saw how all of these different kinds of photographs and 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. Everything became the archive, everything became documentation. Suddenly it all looked fluid. Doing this with a well-known, pre-existing true crime story was unusual, I suppose.
“I've tried to dance around the story more than establish a clear narrative; I've tried to jump from one synecdochical piece of the puzzle to another. Some of the images are remarkably close and true to the story while others are more atmospheric in effect. I often say that ‘Redheaded Peckerwood’ is a body of photographs, documents and objects that utilizes a true crime story as a spine. 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. Ultimately, I wanted the work to act as a more complex, enigmatic visual crime dossier — a mixed collection of cryptic clues and random facts 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. Ironically, it’s a certain amount of "unknowing" that forces us to form our own interpretations and responses.”
What have you learned from your work on “Redheaded Peckerwood"? About the case, photography, your work?
“Photography has never been reality and it never will be. It’s a two-dimensional representation of reality, based at times on 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 “after the fact” is particularly relevant. 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.
“Doing all of this with a true crime story was unusual. This story continues to captivate people and many people continue to speculate and debate the details; some people even debate the guilt or innocence Caril Ann Fugate. I think my work creates opportunities for speculation, but in a very impartial, open-ended way; I'm certainly not trying to take a position or assert one thing or another.
“One thing is certain — it's a tragic story that happened at a pivotal time in America, that includes many heavy themes and that I think lent itself well to my visual study. In the end, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about the case; I only hope that my work will give people pause and reason to reconsider the story, the landscape and its many details, and finally the slippery, seductive but ultimately untrustworthy nature of imagery.”