Viewpoint Gallery, Manchester, UK
A lorry has come off the road; the cab is in a ditch and the body sticks up into the air over one lane. A bunch of flowers lies in the foreground. The only image with any tangible hint of tragedy in this exhibition of traffic accident photographs is also the least effective. What unites the rest of the work is the absence of anything one would associate with accidents: there is no apparent grief, hardly any blood, nothing to titillate or appal and there are no visible victims - in fact, the photographs have almost no emotional content at all. The only people present are dispassionate onlookers kept at some remove - our mirrors. Throughout the work, however, there is an overwhelming sense of stillness (or absence of activity). Taken after the noise of desperation has been silenced and before the tow truck has arrived to clear away the mess, the photographs have a tranquillity made poignant by the violence that has preceded it. But when you remove the horror and suffering, the heroism and the miraculous escapes, you are left with dented metal - in itself arbitrary and mundane.
Despite their presentation here in the context of ‘art’, Arnold Odermatt’s photographs are essentially forensic. For over 30 years he was a Swiss traffic policeman who managed to incorporate his hobby into his job. His original intention was for the photographs to augment his written reports, to illuminate and help reconstruct the how and why of the accidents he attended in his duties. In this light, the peculiar pedestrianism of the images, instead of being a quaintly interesting Swiss-Twin-Peaksy thing, becomes merely a policeman’s objectivity. There is no drama or discernible commentary; the subject of his naive eye is the aftermath of vehicular accidents - broken cars. These form the mainstay of the show: there are cars in fields, inverted cars, cars at weird angles, cars in water, cars in snow. Cars bisected, peeled, foreshortened, torn and elongated. Instead of being striking, many of these images are surprisingly dull. A car that has come to rest unspectacularly against a tree in a village square barely holds the attention - its title, Wolfenschiessen 1963 (1963).
The framing and viewpoints of many of the photographs appear to be at least partially determined by Odermatt’s primary need for an informative record. One image has the eye following the sweeping curve of the road. In the foreground on the left, a few bystanders crowd behind a barrier, more interested now in the photographer, and in the top right corner the back half of a Mini can be seen poised over a precipice. In other images, the skid marks and chalk lines on the tarmac lead the eye toward the inevitable debris at the top of the frame. One such photograph shows a lorry jammed sideways in a tunnel, while another depicts two shattered cars facing each other (à la Ange Leccia) across the lanes of a motorway.
Other photos are less obviously documentary and ever so slightly more amusing. Hergiswill 1966 (1966) contains a terribly distorted VW that has come to rest against a barrier next to a sign indicating where to park - the arrow, of course, points in the same direction as the car. The sight of an inverted camper van in a field, surrounded by posters with the word poulet and cartoon depictions of stuffed chickens is truly bizarre, perhaps even ironic, but the irony and wit seen to be there in spite of, not because of Odermatt - they are also accidents.
Essentially, the intentionality behind these photographs is obscure. Odermatt is not a chronicler or cataloguer in the mould of a Becher, Strüth or Ruff. He does not appear to be interested in the idea of accident or randomness, as an artist might be. There is no unifying principle to provide a clue as to what exactly we learn from them, unless of course, we are being warned to drive more carefully.
The photographs are technically accomplished, and as a result their quality is not completely determined by their workaday origins. But, unlike the cars, when the surface is ripped away, rather than any complexity we find very little to give us the impression that these are anything more than a policeman’s record of happenstance. There’s nothing to see here; move along please.