A RETIRED SWISS POLICE OFFICER MAKES HIS WORK LOOK JUST AS GOOD AS IT POSSIBLY CAN.
by John Glassie
When Arnold Odermatt’s black-and-white photographs of automobile collisions appeared at the 2001 Venice Biennial, almost no one in the visual arts world had heard of the retired Swiss police officer. The Biennial’s curator, Harold Szeemann, first encountered Odermatt’s photos a few years earlier, when they were on view at the police headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany. If the discovery wasn’t exactly accidental—the visit was urged upon him by Odermatt’s son Urs, a film and theater director and protégé of filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski—the find itself was real enough: a compelling body of work that might otherwise never have seen, at least by international art standards, the light of day.
Odermatt, born in Oberdorf, Switzerland, in 1925, was already a camera buff when he joined the Nidwalden canton police force in 1948. He began using his Rolleiflex to photograph accidents as a way of supplementing the usual police reports, and continued the practice for the next forty years, until he left the department, in 1990. As one reviewer has written, he had “little apparent purpose beyond satisfying a gradually developing sense of how he thought such pictures should look.”
Judging from Odermatt’s book of these photos (Karambolage, or Collision, Steidl, 2003), he thought they should look well composed, rich in detail and value range, and, perhaps, with a kind of solemn respect for what had happened on the road, handsome. As requisitely noted by art writers, the crashed cars have a sculptural quality. Some of the best images, however, offer a broad, elevated perspective—Odermatt often shot from a tripod mounted on top of a VW bus—that places the crashes within a larger landscape: a long stretch of highway, an Alpine valley, the crossroads at the edge of a village. The human error, the loss of control, and the violent physical forces that caused the damage are gone. The wrecks are not only incongruous with their more peaceful, less erratic settings, but absurd within them, and somehow there’s greater melancholy for it.
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