Redheaded Peckerwood

A fifty year old murder-spree across the northern plain states inspired one of the most highly praised photobooks of 2011. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the constant influx of new, different, and beautifully printed publications, but there are sometimes those that seem to rise above the rest. Redheaded Peckerwood is one of those books.

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Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood has made a big impression on the art community since it’s original publication in 2011, and is in fact coming out in its third edition in March of this year.

The book traces the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate who, as teenagers, murdered ten people, including Fugate’s family, during a three day killing spree across Nebraska up until their capture in Douglas, Wyoming. Patterson first encountered the story when he saw Badlandsthe 1973 film starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The movie made an impression on him, and along with Sonic Youth, Oliver Stone and Bruce Springsteen, Patterson’s book comes along inspired by the same violent and alluring tale.

Patterson spent several winters following the trail taken by Starkweather and Fugate, lining up their murders with his visits to the day. He not only visited the murder sights of the victims and their neighborhoods, but he searched through the local papers’ archives, got access to evidence from the original case, and talked to locals and local police enforcement as he traveled. The result of all of this is a “photobook-cum-archive“, a subjective documentation of not only the original crime spree, but also of Patterson’s mounting obsession with it.

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In his essay for the book, Luc Sante writes that it contains:

“a kind of subjective documentary photography of the historical past. That requires that the individual pictures be true, as close as possible to the physical details as historically established, while remaining ambiguous and unsettling — because each of them is only an aspect of the story, and because in each of them something is wrong…. Murder charges everything it touches. Every blurred photo, scrap of writing, wadded rag and broken comb … things you’d never look at twice in any other context … takes on imminence with its association with violent death.” 

Its use of a variety of photographic styles, so many of them seemingly simple, to convincingly tell a story, while leaving the reader work to do to piece together the disparate images, objects and clues is what makes it such a successful piece. As Joerg Colberg said in his book review for Conscientious, “A great photobook will distill a greater truth out of the photographs inside, a truth that requires careful looking and reading, a truth that might not even be fully true. Redheaded Peckerwood does this masterfully and beautifully.”

Want to get your hands on a copy? You can take a look at Readheaded Peckerwood at the ICP Library, and explore its extensive collection including its books, magazines and artist files, by appointment.

–Kathy Akey

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