Christian Patterson’s photobook Redheaded Peckerwood is based on events surrounding 1950’s teen serial-killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Over a period of five years Patterson visited and researched the area in Nebraska where the crimes took place, looking for places of significance and traces of what remained. Patterson even managed to find personal belongings and pieces of evidence that were never recovered by the police who worked the case.
In an interview with Ahorn Magazine, Patterson explained his process of creating this book. The work begins with research. He read every book and article about the story and viewed every film made on it. “I compiled lists of known facts – dates, times, names and places contained within the story and lists of random, passing details, words and phrases that triggered visual ideas in my mind” (Ahorn Magazine), gradually developing a chronology of events, knowledge of the characters and the details. He would carry his lists with him and follow through on the ideas in the field. If an idea proved elusive in the field, he would take it back to the studio and work on it there. For much of the five years he was working on this project, he edited, re-edited and sequenced the work and adjusted his lists and continued the research.
The book is a reflection of this process. Its photographs, documents and objects are often highly specific and true to the story but are at other times highly interpretative and subjective. Its sequence is consistently chronological, with varying degrees of veracity and somewhat sporadic chronological space – the result is a mix of the story and my personal experiences, choices and artistic interventions.
(Patterson, Ahorn Magazine)
For certain narrative effect, Patterson made some exceptions to the chronology. The book has a prologue consisting of a letter (tells you something happened), a map (tells you where it happened) and a photograph (offers the entrance to the book) which all appear before the title page. He made use of colour sequences in the book. There is an extensive yellow section in the first half of the book followed by smaller segments of pink, blue and green sections further along. I have to admit that I wasn’t really aware of this colour blocking after my first viewing on the internet, only actively looking for it after reading the interview. Perhaps it is more noticeable in the actual book.
Patterson also makes use of juxtaposition for visual effect placing a photo of “pin-up girls” followed by a flick knife – sex and violence. Another instance is the “house of cards” image followed by an image of a house in the throes of demolition – which is his way of referring to destiny and fate. He also juxtaposes new images next to archival images.
Something I found really fascinating was that Patterson uses inserts and fold-outs in the book. Many of these items are reproductions of actual found items which he acquired or which were lent to him to reproduce. The reproductions have been aged and crumpled, folded and look very realistic. This makes the book very interactive and engages the viewer to lift or unfold the narrative, revealing the images hidden behind the inserts.
… there are many things in the book that are extremely true to the story. But its heavy themes and random details provided me with a ton of creative space and that’s where things became most interesting to me. There are photograph, drawings, paintings, sculptures and shotgun blasts that you could say are made up, because I created them myself.
(Patterson, Ahorn Magazine)
Of foremost importance to Patterson was that each image could stand on its own. He has his own personal standard of visual and emotional impact that he adheres to. “Truth and veracity played a close secondary role to my conceptual and visual interests” (Ahorn Magazine).
Landscapes of crime scenes are interspersed with images of found objects, posters, letters – the absence of people rather noticeable until almost at the end of the book. Only then do photos of people appear: journalists waiting outside the court house, the accused being led away and crowds gathering. It feels rather anti-climatic as the tension and expectation has been building throughout the narrative. As if to emphasis this ending the final image is a poster stating “Let’s all go out and get a steak”.
I was unfamiliar with this criminal case and having done a quick research on it, notice that various movies have been based on this true crime story, e.g. Badlands, Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, to name but a few. I shall have to see if I can access one of these on Netflix to familiarize myself with the saga a little more. Knowing more of the details of the story will enhance my understanding of the images as I have already discovered from a quick read that Starkweather murdered his first victim for a stuffed toy dog which he wanted for Fugate. This would explain the image of the scraggy stuffed dog early in the book. This is clearly a book that is loaded with signs and signifiers that have to be unpeeled in order to get to the meaning of the narrative.
Daniel Augschöll and Anya Jasbar Interview with Christian Patterson [online] Ahorn Magazine Issue 9. Available at: http://www.ahornmagazine.com/issue_9/interview_patterson/interview_patterson.html [Accessed 9 May, 2017]
Patterson, Christian Redheaded Peckerwood [online] http://www.christianpatterson.com/redheaded-peckerwood/#1 [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 May, 2017]
Patterson, Christian (2013) Redheaded Peckerwood (Third Edition) [user-generated content online] Creat. Christian Patterson. 24 September, 2013. 4 mins 16 secs. Available at: https://vimeo.com/75349825 (Accessed 9 May, 2017)