© Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood

 
 

1. For "Redheaded Peckerwood" you have been working alone and "on the road", for a few weeks a year every January, for about five years. What does working over such a long period of time imply? Were there any changes in trajectory while in the making? Do you think that your personal style evolved or simply changed during that time? Has the way of approaching your work changed over the last five years?

In early 2005, I was completing my first series, Sound Affects, which I made during my first three years as an artist, while I was living in Memphis and working as William Eggleston’s archivist. I’m proud of this early work but it bears a certain amount of influence and I soon decided to distance myself from all that by moving back to New York and working on something completely different – something more complex, challenging and new; something more my own.

What initially attracted me to this work was its story – a true crime story involving the heavy themes of teenage angst, young love, confusion, panic and fear; escape, violence and death; and ultimately, the loss of innocence. It also involved travel through the vast, empty landscape of Nebraska in the cold dead of winter. I knew that it would be a difficult undertaking, working 50 years after the original events of the story, completely after-the-fact, in an unfamiliar landscape, and under harsh conditions.

 
 

© Christian Patterson, Snowy Landscape (Looking North), from the series Redheaded Peckerwood

 
 

I needed this challenge, and I relished the isolation of Nebraska and the satisfaction that came with each of my detective discoveries. I researched the story intensely, revisited its crime scenes and other places of significance where possible, and searched for other traces of it that remained out there in the world. I met people along the way and found things that I never imagined I’d find, including personal belongings and pieces of evidence that were never recovered by the detectives who originally worked the case. All of this came as a chilling and thrilling surprise.

I feel fortunate to have taken an extensive length of time to make this work. My inspiration and ideas changed and evolved dramatically over this five-year period. I feel that I’ve developed a new approach, ventured into new territory and incorporated more of myself into this work. I plan to continue making at least some of my work in this more methodical, multi-faceted way.

2. Could you tell us a little bit about the process of creating the "Redheaded Peckerwood" book; what were the main steps to shape this kind of narrative?

It all began with research. I read every book about the story I could get my hands on and viewed every film that dealt directly with the story or was inspired by it. I gave equal consideration to every possible source of information and made lists of the known facts – mainly the 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. I developed and internalized an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the story, its chronology, characters and details.

For five years, I spent between seven and ten days working in Nebraska. I carried my lists with me and obsessively followed every lead and chased after every idea. If an idea eluded me one year, I’d pick up the case and continue my chase the following year. Finally, if I couldn’t execute an idea in the field, I’d shine a light on it and interrogate it in my studio. And for the rest of those five years, I edited, re-edited and sequenced the work I had made, and continued my research and revised my lists.

 
 

© Christian Patterson, Books and Notes

 
 

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 spacing – the result is a mix of the story and my personal experiences, choices and artistic interventions.

I made exceptions to the chronology of the story for narrative effect. For example, the opening sequence to the book employs a cinematic or musical device, much like an opening scene or a prelude. There’s a prologue – a letter, a map and a photograph, and each of these things plays a specific narrative role. The letter tells you that something has happened. The map tells you where it happened. And the photograph, the entrance to an open storm cellar at night, offers you an entrance to the book. These three elements come from three very different points in the chronology of the story.

 
 

© Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood, Book Sequence

 
 

I made exceptions for purely visual effect. For example, there are sequences of color in the book. There’s an extensive yellow section in the first half of the book, and smaller blue, pink and green sections elsewhere. Of course none of this was allowed to significantly disrupt the overall chronology and narrative effect.

 
 

© Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood, Book Sequence

 
 

There are exceptions for general effect. A basic example is the “Pin-up Girls” followed by the “Jackknife.” Sex and violence. Another is the “House of Cards” followed by the “Broken Home” – two similar yet very different ways of referring to destiny and fate.

There are exceptions for more conceptual effect. Early in the book, there’s the “Fake Asphalt Siding” followed by “924 S. Belmont Avenue.” The newer color image precedes the older black and white image – my work precedes the archive. This is an early signal of how much of the book functions and unfolds.

 
 
© Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood, Book Sequence
 
 

The book’s inserts are obviously an essential element. I discovered these pieces of paper in the archives. They belonged to one of the victims, and it was a very moving experience holding them in my hands. I wanted viewers to share in that experience through the book as much as possible.

 
 

© Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood, Book Sequence

 
 

Oddly enough, I feel that all of my detective work brought more mystery back into the story. Not everything in Redheaded Peckerwood is what it may seem. What may appear to be old may be new. What may appear to be fact may (in fact) be fiction. There is a general system of visual rules to the book, but there are exceptions to every rule, for all the reasons mentioned above.

3. Do you think that it is important for the viewer to know about the story your book is based on? Is it necessary that the work be inspired by a true story? Do you think that your work would have the same impact if it were completely made up?

I was fascinated and inspired by the story, and the discoveries that it led me to, and I think viewers are too. The story provides a backdrop but in the end it’s just another layer of information, and not necessarily the most important one.

The story provided me with my starting point and 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.

What’s of greater importance to me is that every piece of the puzzle – every single photograph, document and object – is strong enough to stand on its own, regardless of its source, truth, intention or place in the overall work. I have my own personal standard of visual and emotional impact that everything must meet. There are many things I could have included but chose not to because they didn’t meet my standard. Truth and veracity played a close secondary role to my conceptual and visual interests.

I’ve taken a well-known, well-documented true crime story that’s already been solved and reconstructed it, then deconstructed it and ultimately fragmented it. Looking forward, my next work may or may not be inspired by a true story, and this time around I might not make that so clear. This approach could be equally if not more interesting.

4. Like every photographer who produces a photo-book you have made probably more than one dummy. How many steps did it take to create the finished book? Would you tell us a little bit about your experience of creating a dummy? How did your comprehension of editing, design and layout develop? If I understood it correctly, you did all the work by yourself. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of working alone on this kind of project?

I made the dummy during a one-month artist residency. I spent roughly two weeks editing, sequencing and preparing my images and laying out the pages to be printed; one week testing the sequence within the physical structure of the book; and one week printing, trimming, folding and sewing the book, screen printing the cover and gluing and binding together the book. I collaborated with friends on the screen printing and binding. At the end of the first month, I had one physical dummy.

I mainly worked on the computer using InDesign but also played with small prints on the wall. I then made a few small, black-and-white, photocopied versions of the book. I hesitate to call these versions “dummies.” They weren’t printed to scale, and they weren’t bound. Their main purpose was to test my sequencing and the structure of the book. They were “dummies of the dummy.”

One of the crucial aspects of making a book is understanding its physical structure and making an edit and sequence that works within that structure – working within the constraints of the folding and gathering of the book’s folios and signatures, which dictate to a great extent the number of pages a book can have.

These two steps in the process – the editing and sequencing, followed by the making of a maquette – helped me to learn this work inside and out. And after going through this process, I felt much more knowledgeable about the work and confident about the book.

I looked at other books and there were a few specific ones that inspired the design of my own maquette – namely, the trim size and screen-printed linen cover. I chose the paper based on other dummies I had seen. I chose the cover material based on its color and its referential, black-gray relationship with the photographic negative and the newspaper.

In the end, I made one maquette and duplicated it to produce a limited edition of ten duplicate copies. The MACK edition is extremely faithful to my maquette. The edit and sequence are very slightly different. The trim size and image sizes are exactly the same. The inserts were greatly improved upon – the maquette’s inserts were handmade but the trade edition’s inserts are reproductions of the true original documents. Every other change was an improvement in quality afforded by the press, its better paper and ink.

5. The book was first meant to be self-published. What made you change your mind? Did you have to deal with any difficulties in producing such a complex book with a publisher?

Actually, my ultimate goal was not to self-publish the book. I produced the maquette as a limited edition of ten books to sell, and to raise money in case it would be needed to contribute to the costs of publishing a trade edition of the book. This is increasingly the case with certain publishers, but fortunately was not the case with MACK. I also produced a small number of artist proof copies to share with prospective publishers.

I’ve always admired Michael Mack’s publishing program – the artists and the books. MACK takes great care and pride in helping artists to realize their vision for their books. In their own words, they work “with artists, writers and curators to realize intellectually challenging projects in book form.” And that, to me, says it all.

We agreed from the beginning that the inserts were essential to the book, and we were able to produce them in a very effective way. They look exactly like the original documents. They are all the same size, and show all of the folds, wear and tear of the originals. And when you first encounter an insert in this book, it looks so real that it nearly jumps off the page. I’m really happy with them.

And of course the great thing about an insert is that the viewer can touch it. In fact, with this book, you have to touch the inserts, pull them back or unfold them because they partially obscure images printed on the pages of the book. They’re also double-sided and in a few cases have additional information on their reverse sides. The viewer has to interact with the book and this makes the experience of the book much more intimate and immersive.

6. How do you proceed when it comes to choosing prints for an exhibition? What kind of things do you have to keep in mind when you show the series "Redheaded Peckerwood" in an exhibition?

I’ve been making prints and exhibitions much longer than I’ve been making books, so I’ve always thought of myself as a “wall artist” as much as a “book artist.” I realized early on that this project could function in a special way as a book, but I always envisioned it as an installation and knew that the various documents and objects could play an intimate, immersive, physical role within an exhibition.

As I began planning the first exhibitions and installations, I had a few things to consider. First, this a large project, so the exhibition would have to be a selection based in part on the strength of the individual photographs, documents and objects included. Second, like the book, the exhibition would have to provide some semblance of a narrative. The documents and objects, displayed in vitrines and Plexiglas cubes, go a long way in doing this. The placement and sequencing of the various elements tend to follow the loose chronology of the book, but every space and installation poses unique challenges that require improvisation and creative problem solving.

 
 

© Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood exhibition at Robert Morat, Hamburg

 
 

7. Do you seek feedback from other persons while you are still working on a project? How important are feedbacks from other photographers and how do they differ from the feedbacks you get from gallerists/curators? Does the response somehow influence your work or brings unexpected changes/variations?

I worked in extreme isolation for a very long time but eventually began sharing this work with a small group of fellow artists. Everybody had their own opinion but there were certain feelings and comments that were consistent over time. Some of the feedback I received was helpful but I was very careful about letting it sway my own feelings. This was yet another helpful aspect to spending a great length of time with the work. The cream eventually separates from the milk.

This is a generalization, but I think artists tend to be more versed in the vocabulary of images than gallerists and curators, who tend to have different interests and motivations. This is especially true with the special language of bookmaking, in which artists tend to be more intimately involved and creatively invested than gallerists or curators. I shared the work with one curator, Karen Irvine, and she eventually wrote one of the essays for the book.

8. Besides "Redheaded Peckerwood" you have also been working on other projects that involved photographing in Europe, especially Germany and also in Japan. How do you feel about working in a place that is not your "home"? I guess that there is a lot of research involved before you go to those places and start to make photographs. Do you feel that it is important to be familiar with a place to make good work?

I have a few series that I consider to be ongoing, primarily because I haven’t had a concentrated, focused, significant length of time to spend working on them.

“A Concrete Kind of Fiction” is a loose collection of images that I’ve made in various places over the past ten years – places both near to and far from home. I like the idea of having this more casual series that isn’t tied to anything too specific. The title is taken from John Szarkowski’s introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide. It has a great, consonant rhythm to it and it’s a very direct yet eloquent encapsulation of one of the things about photography that interests me most.

“Axis” is intended to be a collection of images made in Germany and Japan, but I’ve only made images in Germany thus far. The title has a double meaning, referring to history and influence, vis-à-vis World War II and post-war and contemporary photographic movements in Germany and Japan. This work involves some research. And if anyone out there in Japan is reading this – please help me to get to Japan!

Like many people, I’m fascinated with new environments and I have an easier time making pictures while traveling through new places. I don’t think it’s important to be familiar with a place to make good work; on the contrary, a certain amount of unknowing often keeps things more open-ended and leads one into interesting territory.

9. I have recently read that you discovered new materials regarding the Starkweather story. Have you ever imagined that something like this could happen? Could you think about working on a continuation of the project?

Yes, I discovered certain pieces of evidence that had not been seen publicly before, and many of these things are shared in the book and exhibitions.

The Starkweather-Fugate story is one of the biggest news stories in the history of Nebraska, and the town of Lincoln, Nebraska is a small place. There are still many people there who have personal connections to the story and I regularly and randomly met people who had personal experiences to share, and they would often refer me to others. This informal networking led me to unique documents and artifacts hidden away in private hands, and in a few cases I was given these things or able to acquire them for my own use.

In one case, I discovered a piece of evidence while revisiting one of the murder scenes. The place was abandoned immediately after the killing and I recovered something there that the detectives who originally worked the case had overlooked. My research substantiates my finding. I’m reluctant to identify and explain all of these things here now but I do share different details of these stories every time I speak publicly about the work.

One funny thing is that while I was making this work 50 years after the original events, I also had access to modern technology, mainly the internet. Early on, I placed a “Google Alert” on Starkweather and Fugate, so if anyone wrote about them online I would receive an e-mail with a link to the activity. Just one week prior to going on press to make the first edition of the book, I found a man who had a unique press print of Caril Ann Fugate being led out of the courtroom after she was sentenced to life in prison. I had never seen the image before, and the print was retouched by hand with acrylic paint. I love this kind of “news art” and was able to incorporate the image into the book at the last minute.

 
 

© Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood, 3rd Edition Preview, MACK

 
 

More recently, I heard a rumor that a man who was working on an old house in Lincoln had discovered a stash of original press prints hidden inside one of the walls of the house. I spent a day tracking him down on the phone, and he very kindly sent the prints to me. Surprisingly, this story continues to unfold, now more than 50 years later.

Caril Ann’s still out there, though I have no interest in meeting her and I’m sure she has no interest in meeting me. We both have our own versions of the story; hers may or may not be true (she once passed a polygraph or “lie detector” test); I know mine isn’t. I suspect we won’t hear anything from her until the day she dies, and the speculation about her guilt or innocence will continue.

The second edition of the book just sold out at Paris Photo 2012 and the third edition of the book is printing as I write this. This printing will include one of the photographs found in the wall of the house, along with three other new/old images and one new insert. I made this work to share it, and I see no reason to not share new material as it comes my way – as long as it adds to the work in what I feel is a compelling way. The next edition should be available in early 2013.

"Readheaded Peckerwood" is available at: ahornbooks.com

www.christianpatterson.com

www.mackbooks.co.uk

 

 

Interview by Daniel Augschöll and Anya Jasbar