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Friday, February 03, 2006

Accidents on the job bring fame

For more than 40 years, Swiss police photographer Arnold Odermatt documented the minor and major tragedies in his home canton. After he retired, his photographs of accidents became famous – much to his own amazement. In 1948, when Arnold Odermatt began to work for the police in his home canton of Nidwalden, he had not the slightest inkling that decades later his photographs would be traded at international art fairs and auctions. In fact, the young police officer, born in 1925, had great difficulty convincing his colleagues to accept the idea of photographing accidents. In the early 1950s it was not customary practice in the Nidwalden canton to accept photos as evidence in court – as according to the police, skeptical cantonal councilors, and judges, photographs could be manipulated and for that reason had no place in the police records. Those were the days when nobody spoke of speed limits, radar traps or seat-belt laws – the days when police reports were written by hand and officers learned to draw so that they could make sketches at the scene of the crime. But times change.
Arnold Odermatt had to fight for the special payment of 70 Swiss francs to get a tap in the broom cupboard which he had set up as a darkroom at the Nidwalden police station. But from then on the ice was broken and he was able to work professionally. In addition to the traffic accidents, Odermatt recorded other more mundane aspects of police work: He photographed his colleagues in the office, during training or in their free time mostly in color and in the style of PR images – unspectacular pictures which look as though they have been culled from the local police calendar. Arnold Odermatt’s most famous and beautiful pictures, however, are his “accident photos”: Photographs of collisions of which he recorded about 10,000 in black and white in the course of his 40 years police service. Accident photos as artworks? How terrible ... But Arnold Odermatt’s photographs do not show any victims, there is no sign of blood – the ambulance has long since departed when he pushes the shutter release. There is just one photograph where a young boy lies spread out on the road – according to Odermatt the composition is fake: “The boy was dead keen to lie in the picture.”
Photographs of VW Beetles are prominent among the accident shots.
The body of the Beetle has almost human features: two headlights like glaring eyes, a bumper which appears to grin at the viewer – and naturally the delicate car with its harmonious curves rouses a protective instinct in observers. An example (Buochs, 1965): A Beetle has landed in a lake, badly dented with the passenger door open, the car lies helplessly before a cloudy mountain panorama. On the right edge of the picture a few branches from a weeping willow hang decoratively. The dented VW Beetle pulls at our heartstrings.
Is this a photo for the police files? One may well doubt that all Arnold Odermatt’s photographs fulfill a documentary function and exclusively serve to secure evidence. Odermatt desists
from describing himself as an artist. “A good photograph is in focus, you have to see everything in the picture you want to see,” or so his very down-to-earth credo goes. In terms of sobriety and objectivity a couple of the photographs really do give the impression that their purpose is to augment the police reports. Others, however, especially the “Buochs, 1965” shot with a VW Beetle in the lake – do not appear to be purely a matter of gathering evidence. Here Odermatt has quite obviously focused on the picture composition. It is well known that Arnold Odermatt spent plenty of time deciding where to place his Rolleiflex. Searching for the perfect shot he climbed onto bridges, photographed from house windows, or clambered onto the roof of his VW microvan – too much trouble surely for someone interested only in evidence. Moreover, in addition to the police photo he always took a shot for his own archive.
In 1990, Arnold Odermatt retired. The lieutenant, chief of the traffic police and deputy superintendent of the Nidwalden Police never suspected that he would gain international fame as a documenter of small town Swiss dramas. In the mid-1990s, the photographs were discovered by the art and photography community and were all the talk of the 2001 Venice Biennial. Sales of the photographs surely boosts Arnold Odermatt’s police pension.

This was written by Nicolas Nonnenmacher & seized 4 u at Deutsche Boerse

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