Arnold Odermatt

The Art Institute of Chicago

Photography has always been an art of the accident, and at one level the best work of Arnold Odermatt seems to underline this with its subject matter, car crashes. And yet the work requires us to question both terms—art and accident. From 1948 until his retirement in 1990, Odermatt was a traffic policeman in the remote Swiss canton of Nidwalden; a photo buff, he took it upon himself to supplement the diagrammatic drawings that were part of the normal documentation of traffic accidents with images from his Rolleiflex. Curiously, he would make two sets of photographs for each incident; one for the official files and another, more carefully composed, that went home with him. Odermatt never attempted to exhibit the latter until his son took an interest in them, leading to the publication of a book in 1993 and, several years later, an exhibition at—appropriately enough—the Frankfurt Police Headquarters, where they caught the eye of Harald Szeemann. (No one’s saying what he was doing there). Bingo, the Venice Biennale and all the rest.

If it’s an artistic intention that makes a work of art, as has so often been claimed, then one would have to say that Szeemann and those who followed him in appreciating Odermatt’s photographs are deluding themselves, or else substituting their own artistic intentions for those lacking in the photographer himself. Odermatt never set out to be an artist and still denies the name; apparently he is gratified but bemused by the art world’s newfound interest in his efforts. Unless, of course, one understands such an intention to be concerned not with artistic autonomy, but rather with formal control, which Odermatt’s pictures have in spades. If anything, he seems to want to purge the accident scene of every trace of the accidental or unforeseen. Often enough there are no passersby, just one or a pair of smashed autos, VW bugs mostly, poised on the road or, at times, in a river like mysterious modern megaliths. Sometimes the course the cars have taken is traced out in white chalk on the roadway, as if all this had been, not reconstructed, but known in advance, fated. That these are scenes of panic, injury, and perhaps death is not dissembled, yet it becomes irrelevant when the wrecks are viewed as ruins notable above all for their haunting incongruity with the landscape in which they stand so monumentally. The style is not too dry or studiously reportorial but rather subtly atmospheric.

The crash scenes, all in sober black and white, are not the whole of Odermatt’s work. There are also depictions in color, clearly staged, of various aspects of police work, especially training exercises. It’s easy to see why one would be tempted to show these as well, given their evident similarity to works by any number of contemporary artists who make frankly posed color images with a quasi-cinematic feeling for narrative, often with a slightly retro air about them. But most of them lack the formal specificity of the crash scene photographs. Here one really does feel that art status is being retroactively endowed in the absence of sufficient intentionality. The crash scene pictures don’t simply resemble things we later came to see as art; on the contrary, their air of strangeness, of unfamiliarity, is the best evidence of their maker’s rigorous intention, whatever he may have called it.

Barry Schwabsky