In the late 1950s, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate carved a bloody trail of mayhem across the plains of Nebraska and Wyoming. At the end of their three-day killing spree, more than 10 people lay dead, including Fugate’s family. Later immortalized in Terrance Malick’s film Badlands, their crime seems unimaginably horrific and unexplainable—the act of two angry, violent, and bored teenagers that defied reason. These terrible events serve as the launching pad for Christian Patterson’s fantastic new book, Redheaded Peckerwood (MACK, 2011). Moving across various photographic genres, Patterson’s work offers an oblique and mysterious exploration of desire, anger, hopelessness, and despair.
While the story and events surrounding Starkweather and Fugate serve as the spine to Patterson’s book, the work dances around its subject, weaving a complex web of visual clues and allusions. Rather than follow a narrative or documentary trajectory, the work leaps from one synecdochical fragment to the next—a burning house, bloody footprints in the snow, a rusty jack-knife planted in a scarred wall, and a spent shotgun shell are just a few of the images in the book. Each seemingly disparate photograph resonates and points obliquely not only to the tragic events and known, or imagined, facts from the case, but also build upon each other creating a sense of doom and tragedy. Interspersed throughout the book are also white sheets peppered with shotgun shells that seem to mark new chapters or the next victim, and add violent exclamation points as the book progresses.
One of the most interesting aspects of the work is the fact that Patterson employs a variety of different photographic styles. Forensic imagery, traditional documentary, appropriated and staged photographs are all blended together into a volatile mix—an enigmatic dossier of mixed facts and cryptic clues. Various ephemera recovered from the crimes, victims, or used by law enforcement—including a map, a confession letter, painted signs, archival photos, and personal notes—are included either as facsimiles, inserts, or reproductions throughout the book. Patterson also includes photographs of various artifacts from the crimes in oddly affecting still-lifes. In one particularly poignant example, a soiled teal-colored stuffed poodle, left behind by Fugate, forlornly faces a fuchsia backdrop, its face turned away. Although not immediately obvious, Patterson purposely includes both archival and staged photographs, as well as images of real and fake artifacts. By mixing fact and fiction, the work gains meaning not as we struggle to decipher all the clues, but as we forge associative links between the images and trigger our own emotional and imaginative response to the tragic events and violence.
Employing a variety of different styles and genres, Patterson has arrived at an approach that fits the project perfectly. Relatively small for a photobook at roughly 8 by 10 inches, Redheaded Peckerwood packs a wallop. Accompanying the work is an afterword by Karen Irvine, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, who offers excellent insight into the meaning, significance, and context of Patterson’s work. Luc Sante contributes the other essay and is a perfect choice for the book’s dark subject matter. Author of such classics as Low Life, Sante offers an astute reflection not only on Patterson’s work, but on crime, violence, and American culture.
How do you make sense of something so horrible, events that have no rhyme or reason? Like any good artist, Patterson makes little attempt to offer reassurance, clarity, or explanation. Like an incomplete crime dossier or the scrapbook of a beleaguered detective, Redheaded Peckerwood leaves the viewer combing through the ashes and bloody snow struggling to piece together the motives of a crime committed long ago. In the end, it is not a matter of solving the crime—Starkweather confessed and was executed, and Fugate was paroled in 1976. Patterson’s work asks deeper questions about our own personal relationship with violence—where it comes from, how it shapes our lives, and the shocking indelible marks it leaves on our lives, imagination, and the landscape around us. Patterson has plumbed the depths of the American psyche and emerged with something dark, brooding, complex, and wholly engaging.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer.