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Interview: Christian Patterson

The photographer talks about the third edition of "Redheaded Peckerwood"

by Jonah Samson in Culture on 19 February 2013

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When Christian Patterson published his photo book "Redheaded Peckerwood" late in 2011, the immediate and explosive popularity caused both its first and second printings to sell out in rapid succession. Now the book's publisher, MACK, is releasing a new revised third edition, which expands on the project's central inspiration: the 1958 killing spree of teenagers Carrie Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather. We talked to Patterson about the discovery that lead to the expanded third edition.

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After being released at the end of 2011, "Reheaded Peckerwood" quickly sold out its first and second editions, and is now on its third printing. Why do you think this work has resonated so strongly with people?

With "Redheaded Peckerwood", I've tried to do something different; I've tried to dance around my subject more than establish a clear narrative. I've tried to jump from one synecdochical piece of the puzzle to another. I took a more fragmentary approach and tried to create work that was a bit more challenging and complex, and more mysterious—like any good crime story should be.

In making this work, I allowed my ideas to come from anywhere, including my own imagination, which of course is highly interpretive. As a result, some of the images are very close and true to the story while others are more mysterious and atmospheric in effect. Doing this with a true crime story that had been solved, a case that had been closed and a story that has been extensively documented, reinterpreted and mythologized in books and films was unusual.

On an artistic level, I entered the work as a photographer but the challenge of working with a story 50 years after the fact pushed me into new territory—making a range of different types of images and playing with drawing, painting and sculpture. This made the process and the resulting work more interesting to me, and hopefully to others. I've also tried to bring this approach to bear in different ways, with the book and its use of inserts and in installations that include documents, objects, drawings and paintings to complement my photographs.

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There were some slight changes between the first and second editions, but the latest version incorporates a series of never-seen-before images. How did that come about?

I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to revisit and reconsider the story through the reprinting of the book. I never expected to have that opportunity, or to continue to find new content that was strong enough to be included, or that could expand upon the story while maintaining a certain essential sense of mystery.

After the second edition of the book was made, I learned about a man in Nebraska who discovered a stash of negatives and prints hidden inside the wall of an old house. The images included crime scene photographs that I had never seen before. I contacted the man and he very generously mailed everything to me.

I've always tried to be careful with the way I've dealt with this story, these kids and the horrible, tragic things they did. I've never wanted to glorify it in any way. I tried to take a more impartial approach and empathize with the victims, their families and other people affected by all of this. I chose to include just one of the crime scene images in the new, third edition of the book—a photograph of a dog peeking out from under a bed, with a shoe jutting out next to him. That image shows a little but says a lot.

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The success of this book has resulted in a very busy schedule for you. What's coming up?

Over the next four months I'm traveling to Madrid, Milan and London to talk about the work, to Mississippi to work on what I hope will be my next big project and finally to Los Angeles for the first US solo exhibition of "Redheaded Peckerwood" (opening 29 June at Rose Gallery)

"Redheaded Peckerwood" is available for purchase online from MACK. Images courtesy of Christian Patterson and MACK.

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