Review: Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson


Book Reviews, Photobooks


The pleasure of a truly great photobook is not limited to seeing a set of photographs put together in a way that make the medium shine, that show how so many of the usual debates about photography and its supposed shortcomings are flawed. You also get a perceptive essay or two, to go along the photography. Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood comes with writing by Karen Irvine and Luc Sante. Sante’s essay had me dread writing a review of the book, given it so wonderfully talks about the book. What is there left to say? (more)

By now, you have probably seen Redheaded Peckerwood being picked the most by the various people (me included) who compiled a “best of 2011” list. As subjective as such lists are, I’d like to point at one very simple fact: In Marc Feustel’s tallying of these lists, the book was picked by 19 out of the 50+ lists, far ahead of all the other books. The photobook market is heavily fragmented, and this fragmentation is clearly visible in these lists. Seen in this light, finding Redheaded Peckerwood so far ahead of every other book tells us something. Of course, this is a bit of a 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong type argument (or, more accurately for the small fine-art photo world, a 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong type argument). But still… this is a very complex book, a book that you need to spend careful time with, to understand what is going on. I’m not only pleased to see that photobooks like this one are being made, I’m also pleased to see it’s received so well.

In his essay, Luc Sante writes the book 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.”
The idea that there could be such a thing as a “subjective documentary photography” will probably have many people revolt. Shouldn’t documentary photography be objective? Well, why don’t we ask it the other way around: Why should documentary photographs be objective?

Maybe what we should really ask is where we find the truth that we are always so desperately looking for. If anything, Redheaded Peckerwood demonstrates that if we only expect it to find in photographs, we can easily be led down a dark, dark alley. As Sante writes, each of the photographs in the book contains an element of truth, a connection to a historical past, as well as some un-truth. The essence is to combine all these different elements and to then see - I hope you will excuse the cliche expression - the big picture.

This is why Redheaded Peckerwood is such a great book, because it uses photographs of different styles, many of them seemingly simple, some seemingly confusing, to convincingly tell a story, namely how two teenagers ran away from home, killed a bunch of people, and then got caught and punished.

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.

Redheaded Peckerwood, photographs by Christian Patterson, essays by Luc Sante and Karen Irvine, 164 pages, Mack, 2011

(find my video presentation of the book here)