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December 20, 2004

A Conversation with Christian Patterson


I've mentioned Christian Patterson on this site several times, from the time I discovered his work serendipitously through a link from another photographer's site early this year, and then encountered more of it through the PDN 30, and then came to find out that he plays a significant role with the Eggleston Trust, including developing William Eggleston's ace website.

As I've plugged along with my own journal here, Christian always came across as one of the most accessible photographers, and we had exchanged emails a few times.  I approached him recently about doing an informal interview, not necessarily with the intention of putting him on a pedestal as the "next hot artist", but more with the idea of having a conversation with a fellow photographer about his particularly interesting emerging career, and talking a bit about the process of photography.

But make no mistake: Christian has talent to burn and is indeed worth watching. The latest worthwhile showcase for his work online can be seen in ak47.tv's sixth issue, and he has an exhibition at the Power House Gallery in Memphis scheduled for the summer of 2005. He's a 32 year old Memphis based photographer with a growing pedigree, and has managed to achieve a great deal without (yet) having to endure the rituals of many aspiring commercial and fine art photographers, such as endless mailers of art cards (that end up in the trash bins of agencies), lavish expenditures on portfolio books, and gallery rejections galore.

He works as hard and as passionately as anyone, but likes to let his striking vernacular color work mostly speak for itself, and Elena Goodinson at Hotshoe Magazine had a particularly apt description of the appeal of his best images: "...a celebration of our ambiguous place in time captured within a poet's eye".

Here's some of what we talked about:

COINCIDENCES: Maybe we could start by talking about how you got started photographing seriously. 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I consider the time of my relocation from New York to Memphis as the start of my "serious" photography. I moved to Memphis in the spring of 2002. 

COINCIDENCES: And what made you relocate to Memphis, if you don't mind talking about that?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I discovered Eggleston's work while living in New York. I felt a strong emotional connection with his work. It was his personal vision. The attitude and style of his work was a clear representation of what I was striving for in my own photography, in terms of approach and feeling. 

I decided to fly to Memphis. I called the office of the Eggleston Artistic Trust and spoke with Bill's son, Winston, who is the business director. Winston invited me to visit the Trust and see more of the work there. After the call, I met Winston and Bill at a gallery opening in New York, as well. 

I stayed in touch with the Egglestons and visited Memphis a few more times. The Trust needed assistance archiving and organizing the work, and I was eager to gain exposure to his work. I made the decision to move to Memphis. 

That is one thing I've learned: Never be afraid to talk with someone. It's a small world, people are intrinsically good, and things usually work out well. 


Christian Patterson image, from "Kind of A Drag" series

COINCIDENCES: I've mentioned the Eggleston website on my blog, and it's one of the most impressive results of your relationship with the Eggleston Trust. Can you talk more about how the website evolved, and what other types of responsibilities you may have had?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I had worked as a project manager with a web design firm in New York. I learned HTML, and designed and built my own photography website. I quickly realized how effective a website can be for forcing you to edit your work, allowing you to share your work, receive feedback, and make connections with interesting people with shared interests. 

I suggested the website to the Egglestons. It's an opportunity for us to provide all of the usual information--artist bio, lists of shows, etc.--and, in the case of a prolific, legendary artist like Eggleston, provide access to information and work that simply couldn't be found anywhere else. 

I've tried to do things with the Eggleston Trust site that were revealing, informative, and fun. Perhaps most importantly, there are image samples from some extremely rare artist books and portfolios. I've also posted everything from his high school yearbook portrait to the first examples of published work to video footage of him playing the Hammond organ in our office. 

We're very happy with the site, and we've received very positive feedback from people who have visited the site. 

But my main responsibilities at the Trust relate to the organization and archiving of Eggleston's work. Negatives, prints, editioning of prints,etc. I also prepare images for media use, and work on one-off promotional items.

Eggleston Trust home page

COINCIDENCES:Can you talk a little bit about your personal background?  You mentioned you were a musician in the past?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: My father is a musician, a guitar player. I grew up watching him play in the bars. I've always had a creative outlet in my life. During my teens and twenties, it was music. I played in a couple of bands in New York. But I decided to devote myself to photography after moving to Memphis. 

COINCIDENCES: Mind if I ask what kind of music you were playing? Do you still play from time to time? 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I played in a guitar rock band. The music incorporated a lot of loud guitars and feedback. I could only describe it as loud, swirling music. (Pause). With melody. 

COINCIDENCES: Ha! Melody is always a good thing. :-)

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I do still play guitar. I just purchased a vintage guitar yesterday. And I do think about starting another band. I do miss playing. But photography comes first. 

COINCIDENCES: How has your own photography evolved within the context of the work you’re doing for the Egglestons? What role has Eggleston played as a mentor?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I wouldn’t say that my photography has evolved within the work I do with the Egglestons. But I have learned a lot. 

I now have a much greater understanding of the span of one's creative career versus commercial success. I've also learned about the business aspects of being a photographer, from an editorial/commercial and a fine art perspective. 

Working with Eggleston has definitely been a highlight. We've never had a mentoring relationship. He's not my teacher, he's my friend. We talk about photography. He's been very praiseful and highly supportive of my work...we also talk about Memphis, music, and barbecue. 

I've learned more about photography from looking at things, following my instinct, and just doing what I love. My work is very organic, in the sense that I have no formal art education or training. I've learned by doing, by looking, by experimenting, and by having an open mind. So my work comes from a very personal place. 

I think the most important thing I've learned is that it's about your own experiences, who you are, and therefore your attitude, style, and vision, and just doing what feels right. 

COINCIDENCES: I know I first came across your work through several sources, with your recognition as one of the PDN 30 in 2004 being particularly prominent.

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Being recognized in the 2004 PDN30 was nice. It was funny to see myself listed with photographers following the traditional path, getting their master's degrees, living in the big city, etc. 

I'm really looking forward to my solo show at Power House, here in Memphis, in Summer 2005. It's a great space, and its curator Peter Fleissig is bringing world-class artists to Memphis. They had shows by Eggleston, Paul Graham, and Mitch Epstein last year. There are only four shows a year, and so far it's Janet Cardiff, George Condo, and myself. It will be fun to share some of my Memphis work with the people who live here. 

COINCIDENCES: Can you elaborate a little on that point you made earlier about your understanding of “the span of one’s creative career vs commercial success”?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I started shooting for myself. And I continue to shoot for myself. I can't explain it. It's a compulsion. An obsession. My first priority is to shoot. 

I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with Eggleston. It's a great environment. A generous arrangement. I'm allowed to spend time working on my own stuff. I'm given encouragement. I'm given vacation time to travel and shoot. 

I've been very lucky; I haven't actively pursued most of the opportunities that have come to me. I don't have a working print portfolio. My website, the few editorial assignments I've accepted, and the few shows I've participated in, have all provided great exposure. 

COINCIDENCES: Given that you didn't follow the "traditional" path of many photographers (as you mentioned, school, portfolios, etc), how did PDN find you?  You just mentioned a few things, and you of course have the passion, which is critical...but many photographers out there have passion and connections.

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I was referred to PDN by my friend Jason Fulford. He's a great photographer, and he was included in the first "PDN30".   

COINCIDENCES: Yes, I know of Jason...he is a very good photographer. In fact, he's self-published some books, hasn't he?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Yes, that is Jason. 

My ultimate aspiration is to continue to shoot, and develop a self-sustaining career as an artist. I've spent the past three years developing as a photographer, and developing my own attitude and sense of style.


Christian Patterson image

COINCIDENCES: Well, you're certainly doing a great job...to be exhibiting in the same space that's shown folks like Paul Graham and Mitch Epstein, I'd say you're doing pretty well. 

We talked a little bit (and I've mentioned on my site) how many galleries tend to look for work that is project-based, or relies heavily on a "theme" or "series".  Can you talk about how you feel about the way galleries tend to evaluate photographers' work, and how you've been received so far? 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Well I can talk about my feelings with regard to working around a theme or project. But I can't talk much about the way that galleries evaluate work, or how I've been received, because I haven't sent my work to any galleries! 

COINCIDENCES: Ah, then that's OK. :-) But have you gotten any advice from friends, or seen any of your colleagues go through the process?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Not really. This may sound idealistic, or even naive, but I truly believe that the work is what is most important. There is no doubt that it can be advantageous to have an art education, to know the right people, and to have a well-written statement. But what is most important to me is the work. 

We all need to push everything else aside, and ask ourselves, "Does this work move me?".  I appreciate and enjoy a great deal of work that I see that is based around an obvious theme or project idea. There are many, many examples. This seems to be a photographic tradition. 

On the other hand, It seems that the public has come to expect work to be presented to them in this fashion, or that the work needs a context or an explanation. And that is a disappointment. 

And it seems that some galleries, for marketing purposes and financially-motivated reasons, may be more interested in showing twenty photographs of sock monkeys instead of twenty great photographs of completely different things that share a common feeling or emotion. 

COINCIDENCES: I can see what you mean on that point...in fact, to provide an extreme example, I just discovered someone who did that type of work -- not sock monkeys, but a series with melting popsicles in every photograph. To be fair, the artist I'm referring to was really more of a conceptual artist who happened to be using photographs...which may be a whole different discussion. 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Yes. I don't want to shoot popsicles for a living. And I don't want to be remembered for shooting popsicles. It has nothing to do with who I am. 

I am not completely opposed to shooting a group of photographs as a pre-meditated project. But I have yet to identify a project that I am passionate about, that I feel a strong personal connection with, and that says something about me. I need that personal connection. 

A theme or a project idea does not necessarily make for great work…I prefer to shoot the work first, as it hits me, and as it moves me, and establish the connections later. 

COINCIDENCES: Apart from Eggleston, are there are other artists whose work you enjoy or actively look at than you can mention?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Yes, there are other artists that I enjoy. Ed Ruscha, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld...and many others. I also enjoy the films of David Lynch and Wim Wenders. 

COINCIDENCES: Great names...all my favorites too, seriously. For a while, it seemed like all I looked at were photographs by either Shore or Eggleston. 

Following up on that point, one observation that's been made by a few people in the photoblog world is that many contemporary commercial photographers seem to be very heavily influenced by Bill Eggleston... in fact, some feel the imitation or "homage" is getting to be a bit much. Do you have an opinion on this? 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: There is no doubt that Eggleston is more popular and influential than ever before. Popular culture seems to rediscover things on a twenty-year cycle. Bill shot a lot of his biggest images in the 1970s, in color. So I'm not surprised that he seems to be so popular right now. 

One thing that really amazes me about his work, and the work of Stephen Shore, among others, is the amount of thought and foresight that went into their work.


Christian Patterson image, from Kicks series

COINCIDENCES: Can you talk a bit about the equipment you use, and how you tend to act on your passion for photography? Do you haul Leicas around like Bill, or do you favor different equipment or formats? It seems like you travel a fair amount... 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Like many photographers, I started with 35mm. I then saved up my money and bought a Hasselblad. 

The Hasselblad was a great camera for my transition to medium format. It's such a beautiful but basic design. It gives you the opportunity to learn the basic elements of making a photograph. And the square format makes you look at everything differently. 

But my main camera for the past few years has been a Fuji 6x9. I love this camera. It's so nice to have a 6x9 that you can take anywhere. I also just purchased a 4x5, but I haven't begun to use it yet. 

I work within a hybrid process. I shoot film. And I shoot it on medium format. But I only get my film processed, and not printed. I scan each individual frame that I shoot. I do this for two reasons: To save money on printing so I can shoot more film, and to force myself to closely inspect what I am doing, frame by frame. 

This lends itself well to the learning process, and the refinement of my approach. I do print my work, when there is a shot that I want to print. 

COINCIDENCES: I considered investing in a 6x9 myself, though I ended up making the jump to 8x10, and it seems like you're going to get started with large format. What spurred your interest in something that's clearly more deliberate than the "smaller" formats?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I decided to travel more this year. I had been living and shooting in Memphis for two years. It was an opportunity to diversify my work, and to prove to myself and to others that I can shoot and let my personality permeate other places. 

I went out West, up into the Great Plains, and down into Florida. A lot of my shooting is a product of driving and exploring by car. During these trips, I found myself shooting a lot of landscapes and scenes that incorporated architectural elements. I wasn’t getting the amount of perspective control that made an image feel natural. So I decided to look into a large format camera. 

I like to work with equipment that is very transparent. I'm a photographer, but I don't want to look at a photograph and spend more time thinking about the camera than the work itself. 

COINCIDENCES: Well, you have your work cut out for you with large format...it's not very transparent. :-) But seriously, I have no doubt you'll master it fairly easily.

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Well I know that there is more involved in producing an image with one of these cameras. What I mean by "transparent" is that the camera is not a strong presence in the final image, and the final image is rendered in a way that feels very natural or similar to what is seen with the human eye. 

COINCIDENCES: I see what you mean about transparency that way, and that's a good goal to strive for. Though one of the attractions of large format, especially as practiced by folks like Shore and Sternfeld, is that there is something "studied" and hyperreal about the results -- at least to me, what's attractive about their best images is how natural *and* how unnatural they look.

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Yes, the New York Times described Shore's work as "looking at the world…stoned" or something to that effect. It's a fitting description of the different kind of sensibility that you find in this type of work. 

COINCIDENCES: Do you have any stories about working with Bill that you'd like to share? Not anything sensationalistic, maybe an anecdote that reinforced that moving to Memphis was a great thing to do... 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Oh, there are so many stories about Bill out there already. Some of them are true, some of them are not. They all add to the mystique that surrounds him and his work. I honestly try to maintain a healthy degree of separation between his work and everything else about him. 

COINCIDENCES: Well, I wasn't referring to the exaggerated, larger than life stuff about Bill...more about working with the man on a day to day basis. Even something mundane like, did you learn about the best barbecue from him after you moved to Memphis? Or do you guys have different tastes?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: We like to go to TOPS barbecue on Summer Avenue in Memphis. It's a cool little building that has been there since the 1950s, I think. Kind of like a little drive-in spot. It has a giant brick smokestack with a smiling pig lined in red neon. We both order our barbecue "hot and dark, chopped fine". Extra well-done and crunchy, extra spicy. 

It's also nice to have Bill in the office, playing his music. We have an old Hammond organ with a giant Leslie speaker, and he'll sit down and rattle off some Bach, or one of his own compositions. He's a great player. 

COINCIDENCES: That's great. Regarding your work, the things that jump out are the roadside architecture and the color, both of which are very striking in your images. 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I love traveling, and traveling by car. I'm a bit of a car junkie. It's just so nice to have the world flying by with the windows rolled down and the music turned up loud. It seems like this has, over the years, transcended its position as an average American ritual, and become a photographer's rite of passage. 

COINCIDENCES: Do you have any good stories about shooting on the road, or have you ever encountered any issues when shooting in the places you do? You've certainly captured some colorful locations.

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: There is nothing like sitting in the car, watching a three-sided, real life, true story pass by. And things get really exciting when that special something catches your eye. 

I’ve been to some great places this year. I really enjoyed South Dakota, and the Great Plains. I actually have an idea for a conceptual series of photographs I want to shoot across Nebraska. It’s a secret for now…

I rarely encounter any issues while shooting. I usually work very quickly and quietly. I’m very aware of other people around me. They usually just look at me funny, or they ask “Why are you taking that picture?” I say, “Because I like what I see.” But what I’m really thinking is, “If you only knew…” 

COINCIDENCES: Could you elaborate on your approach to color? 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I just love color. I live in color. I dream in color. The Land of Oz is in color, and I think there’s a reason... I can’t say that I’m attracted to any particular colors. I just like big, bright, punchy colors that seem to say, “Hey!” or make me think “Wow!” And this seems to communicate/translate well with other people. 

COINCIDENCES: What kind of films do you tend to favor? I know you end up doing a lot of work on the computer after processing, but I was just curious. 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: I use Fuji Reala. This film has great color and saturation. The reds are especially wild. 

COINCIDENCES:  I also like your shots of people (specifically the Midtowners series).  How much do you enjoy shooting people?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: It's interesting to hear that. I don't know, I think I'm slowly becoming more comfortable with the idea of shooting people. The "Midtowners" portraits are just pictures of friends who live in Midtown Memphis. It's been something to do during the colder winter months.


Christian Patterson image, from Midtowner series

COINCIDENCES: Regarding the people, I think it's your sense of color. The vertical shot of the woman in the green chair, the shot of the redhead in the record store, the guy with the big goofy glasses...it all fits very well with your sensibility. They may be just shots of your friends, but they certainly stand out compared to the cookie cutter commercial portraits out there. I hope you find more people to photograph as you continue to drive around. 

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Yeah, all of the Midtowners are being shot in their living spaces. Some of the people are friends, some of them are people that I see at rock shows and after-parties. It's been a good experiment/experience. A chance to interact with the people involved. An opportunity to see how much I enjoy shooting in this type of situation. 

I do think you've made a point there...those pictures do seem to fit in with the other stuff that I do. Which is saying something. 

COINCIDENCES: It sounds like lots of good things are ahead of you. When is the Powerhouse exhibition scheduled for again?

CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: Summer 2005. Probably May or June.

My thanks again to Christian for our conversation, and people with additional questions are welcome to comment here or email him directly (info AT christianpatterson DOT com).

05:37 PM | Permalink


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Robert, I really enjoyed your interview with Christian Patterson but am even more pleased to find a forum (and links to other such forums) for intelligent discussion of photography and its place in and effect on our culture. You write well and, from what I’ve seen, provide a broad and insightful view of the nature of photography today. I look forward to perusing your archives. This is the type of discourse that I’ve been hoping to find on the web since I rediscovered my passion for photography in the last couple of years. It has been surprisingly hard to find…

A couple of specific points from the Patterson interview caught my attention. I think Christian must have been reading my journal when he said “My first priority is to shoot.” I think that this should be the mantra of every artist – make art first! Everything else should be secondary – the web site, the marketing, the e-mails, the catalog. When in doubt, go shoot, follow your vision. I think the majority of artists miss this point. They spend more time worrying about how they’re going to present their images, how they’re going to network, how they’re going to get more web traffic and the quality of their images suffers.

And I had to laugh out loud at the discussion of the “twenty sock monkeys” approach to showing photography. This has been a pet peeve (pun possibly intended) of mine for years. Whether it’s just a “photographic tradition” or a giant rut that the photo world is having trouble climbing out of I really object to the whole expectation of “themes” and “series.” Like Christian, I recognize the value of a good series done right or an thoughtful and cohesive approach to a theme. But let’s give some credence to artists whose vision and unifying characteristics may be broader and less obvious than just a sock monkey in every picture.

I better shut up before I put my foot in my mouth. Congrats to Christian on some well-deserved recognition. Thanks “Robert” for the intelligent site.

Posted by: toma at Dec 22, 2004 12:16:37 PM

I seem to have omitted my opening paragraph, a vague and rambling missive in which I lamented the difficulty of finding the name of the author of the Coincidences web site, finally just assuming that it's Robert based on the email address. Hence, the quotes around "Robert" at the end... Who ARE you really?

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This has to be one of the most thought provoking interviews I've read in a long time. I have really enjoyed it.
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