Redheaded Peckerwood Photographs by Christian Patterson. Essays by Luc Sante and Karen Irvine Published by Mack Books, 2011.
Several years ago I reviewed Christian Patterson's book Sound Affects in this space. I enjoy extrapolating the accomplishments of newer material from past efforts. So, what carries forward into Patterson's muchadmired new volume? Sound Affects, for those who haven't seen it, channels a socio-cultural reflection on auditory phenomena through a photographic filter, and relies on disparate material that, magically, fashions a whole narrative.
Like the earlier book, Redheaded Peckerwood is devoid of first generation images of people—that is, seen and captured on film or pixel by Patterson himself. But the symbolic associations generated by the catch-all camera are poignant, dense, and, in the present publication, both ominous and awfully human. I wrote that Sound Affects "sings a poignant, a cappella harmony;" in Redheaded Peckerwood, that song intensifies into full-blooded, Grand Guignol opera. Patterson is clearly mastering his medium, before, during, and after the exposure. He conceives, executes, edits, and designs with forceful subtlety.
I must admit to a certain satisfaction in seeing not one but two photographs of soda bottles in Redheaded Peckerwood ("7-Up Bottle" and "Oregon Trail Bottle," the former an abandoned item nearly camouflaged on grass, the latter the first and most fascinating of the archival photographs employed in the book); about Sound Affects I wrote that "perhaps the least interesting image in the book" was one of a 7-Up bottle that seemed minimally valuable. "Stax Bottle," I wrote, "gains traction largely because [it] calls up a legendary recording studio and leads one to wonder just what music-world celebrity might have left salivary DNA, or a cigarette butt, in that soda pop." We must speculate, again, about the roles played by the two new bottles.
Patterson's new images are all insidiously guilty by association. Having read the bragging, confessional letter co-written by Redheaded Peckerwood's antagonists, the teenager spree killers Caril Fugate and Charles "Chuck" Starkweather, one is duly prepared for all subsequent images to terrify or shock, if only by implication. The letter, part of the pre-title page "overture" to the book, is must reading. Even without it, though, the book conveys a message of looming horror. This anticipatory sensation is a rare feat. Patterson collected photographs and artifacts along the route the killers took more than fifty years ago. But Redheaded Peckerwood creates a sense of building toward something that hasn't yet happened. Though its terrible facts were inscribed two generations ago, Patterson's version tells the story in present tense. We are on a journey with Caril and Charles, one that will, as the letter notes, be "going to the end."
More so than many, the physical structure of this book is critical to Patterson's intentions; he is the designer as well as the photographer, and the little touches feel just right. Securely bound in are immaculately reproduced documents—a receipt from a general store, handwritten and typed notes of prurient and sarcastic tone, truly evidence that weighs on a reader's imagination. A booklet containing insightful essays by Luc Sante and Karen Irvine is tucked inside the front cover, like a magazine blow-in card. Although it is linked visually by matching the book's endpapers and conceptually by an intriguingly erratic manual typewriter font, the booklet has no physical ties, allowing its interpretive strategies to circle Patterson's carefully structured narrative like an orbiting moon and shine in reflected light. Even the cover, dust jacketless boards printed with a screened, dimly grey picture of the charismatic criminals, shifts elusively from image to reflection, like a daguerreotype or a printer's plate.
Flip through this book once, casually. Even from back to front. Then reread it, starting with the opening letter and proceeding slowly, page to page in order, letting things sink in. Open yourself to the realm of CSI, or the psychodrama of "profilers." You may, as I did once or twice, flinch when you encounter a newly "informative" bit of evidence. When was the last time that happened to you while reading a photo book?
George Slade , a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/