Renowned visual artist Christian Patterson spoke about his recent work in photography at the Yale School of Art on Tuesday.
The talk focused largely on Patterson’s 2011 photobook called “Redheaded Peckerwood” — a monograph inspired by teenagers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate’s 1950s killing spree in the states of Nebraska and Wyoming that claimed the lives of 11 people. The photographer also discussed his upbringing in “great American cities” such as Memphis, New York, and Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin and outlined the motivations behind the critically acclaimed “Redheaded Peckerwood.”
“I became interested in photography in New York in the late nineties,” Patterson said. “I began exploring galleries, museums, bookstores, and became inspired to take better pictures myself.”
Patterson said his early experiences incited a process of learning by doing, which allowed him to become more self-aware and discover the true nature of his work. He added that his interest in the Nebraska murders was spurred by the experience of watching Terrence Malick’s film “Badlands”, a fictionalized account of the killing spree which inspired Patterson to visit the state and research the homicides.
His growing interest in the case sparked a series of monumental voyages across Nebraska, Patterson explained, including five visits to the area between 2005 to 2010. Seeking to explore the underlying narrative of his project, the artist tracked newspaper excerpts as well as the locations of the various murders, creating a visual archive of the teenage couple’s brutal escapade.
Though he insists that he was not attempting to “solve the crime,” Patterson added that he worked in a forensic manner throughout his time in Nebraska, tracing elements of the past in the present.
“[He is] almost like a detective in how [he] goes about working,” said John Pilson, a faculty member at the Yale School of Art who attended the talk. One of the pieces in the photobook is a picture of a stuffed blue bear, a toy which once belonged to Caril Ann Fugate which Patterson found at an abandoned farmhouse, one of the crime scenes. He explained that the photograph serves as a macabre reference to the “lost innocence” of the 14-year-old, adding that the experience of finding the bear “left his hair on end.”
Yet “Redheaded Peckerwood” also draws on Patterson’s own imagination, which he said he used to fill several visual holes, adding that he began to push himself into new territory, such as the studio, to complete this visual chronicle.
“He presents an opportunity to create his own viewership,” said David Alekhuogie ART ’15, adding that he thinks most audience members enjoyed the lecture.
Patterson noted that he recently completed a collaborative project entitled “Bottom of the Lake” — the English translation of the name of his hometown, Fond-du-Lac. This photobook explores the climate and culture of his hometown from a perspective marked by “objectiveness and coldness,” he said. Featuring an approach rooted in analysis and concept, the artist noted that the work — which he plans on expanding to an exhibition — is a reflection of who he is as an artist.
Christian Patterson was the recipient of the 2012 Recontres d’Arles Author Book Award for “Redheaded Peckerwood.”