Car Crash Fetish

The art of Register photographer Mell Kilpatrick

Harbor & Garden Grove, truck wreck
Photo by Mell Kilpatrick, courtesy of
Ape Pen Publishing (
The tanker trunk is jackknifed across the 405. Don't look. Behind it sits a totaled Pontiac, its front end crushed to the firewall, its windshield a shroud of the driver's face. The first at the scene, I approach the wreck on foot. The car's interior is dark; nothing is visible at first. A vision of decapitation, mangled limbs and eyeballs dangling on optical cords makes me hesitate as I approach the door. Frozen in anticipation, I feel the truck driver reach over my shoulder and yank hard on the door handle. It shudders and moans—grinding against its frame—then finally opens to the death scene. In a procession of passing cars, the crowd gawks at a New Age crucifixion. It's a Mell Kilpatrick moment.

* * *

During the 1950s, Kilpatrick cruised the two-lane roads of neo-natal Orange County with his police-band radio and Speed Graphic camera, looking for crashes to capture on film. In the formative years of Southern California's car culture, his beat was the aftermath of highway tragedy. Reflections of bent metal, dead bodies and broken glass, Kilpatrick's photos, like Byzantine crucifixion panels, bring us face to face with our mortality. Tempted to turn away, we stare with wary fascination. His frames, frozen in time, suggest that if the crucifixion points to the blessing of forgiveness, the crash points to the blessing of circumstance.

The story of Mell Kilpatrick is about circumstance. If he were alive today, he might say life is a series of unexpected turns that prove we can never foresee how we'll be remembered.

Kilpatrick was born in Arcola, Illinois, in 1902. An only child, he helped with the heavy lifting at the age of 10, when his family moved to Idaho in a covered wagon. They settled in the city of Windor, where his father, James Henry, opened a slaughterhouse. Mell wasn't prepared for a life of meat and cleavers—at least not yet. He married, studied coronet and dreamed of playing in a dance band. In 1928, determined to find a job as a musician, he moved to Southern California with his wife, Katherine. There, he landed a job playing the local circuit —from the Dianna Ballroom to the Balboa Pavilion. All the while, he helped raise a family of five. Life was good.

Then Kilpatrick's fortunes changed forever, re-routed by a case of bad oral hygiene. Flossing might have led Kilpatrick down a different road, but in 1947, periodontal disease prompted the removal of all his teeth. It was the kiss of death for a professional horn player. By 1948, the dentured Kilpatrick found himself commuting from his Santa Ana home to his new job as projectionist at the West Coast, Laguna and Balboa Theaters. He threaded reels of The Big Sleep, Notorious, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Detour and DOA. Film noir heroes, subjects of a dark destiny, stood 20 feet tall on the screen as he watched. The car was a part of movie language, a symbol of escape, climax and danger.

The lesson of noir wasn't lost on Kilpatrick. In late 1948, down on his luck and with no relevant experience, he picked up a camera on a friend's suggestion and began shooting. It wasn't like playing coronet, but photography was a paying gig.

At first, he photographed evidence for insurance companies, then accidents for the Highway Patrol. They were modern-day memento mori—stark, black-and-white documents of unexpected death. Hard-boiled and methodical, Kilpatrick surveyed each wreck and pointed his camera inside. He framed the decapitated body. Click. He framed the twisted front seat and the shattered skull. Click. He framed the contorted hand reaching like a paraplegic David through the shattered window toward the gathered crowd outside. Click.* * *

On another road, in 400 BC, Leontius, the son of a nobleman, came to an intersection and confronted a similar scene. Traveling to Athens, he noticed the corpses of crucified men. He was curious and wanted to rubberneck, but something held him back. There Leontius stood, too far away to get a good look, his appetite in conflict with his reason—like one of us trying to see a northbound accident from the southbound lanes. CalTrans calls this the Gawk Effect.

Leontius "felt a longing desire to see them and also an abhorrence of them," Socrates reports in Plato's Republic. "At first, he turned away and shut his eyes, then, suddenly tearing them open, Leontius said, 'Take your fill, ye wretches, of the fair sight.'"

The same conflict haunts us when we see Kilpatrick's photos. Confronted with the end of a life, we want to turn away, but instead we stare.

* * *

Kilpatrick was a student of the Gawk Effect. One day, the legend goes, he appeared unannounced at the Santa Ana Registerwith an envelope of death scenes in his hand. They made him a staff photographer.

Kilpatrick worked an 80-hour week to make a living wage. On call day and night, his phone number was at the top of every Orange County law enforcement and fire department call list, including the coroner's office.

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