Car Crash Fetish

The art of Register photographer Mell Kilpatrick

In the darkroom, he wore a blue technician's coat and carefully placed each negative in an envelope with a title: Wreck—Chapman and Tustin. Fatality—Grand and La Habra. Fatality—Crystal Cove. Wreck—Los Alamitos. Fatality—Harbor Boulevard.

* * *

There's an enormous cultural taboo around Kilpatrick's images because death in western culture is increasingly private," says Mikita Brottman, editor of the book Car Crash Culture. A professor of liberal arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Brottman explained how we distance ourselves from death and isolate the dying. Every day, we witness a cavalcade of dead bodies on TV, she said, but in real life, most of us are fatality virgins.

"In our culture, bodies in their most important moments—birth, sex, death, illness—are not supposed to be on display," Brottman continued. "There's something in this ambivalence that's clarified in Kilpatrick's photos—we get an aesthetic pleasure looking death in the face, both in the 'triumphalism of the survivor' and in the inspiration the encounter provides."

Brottman recalls the character in a Gustave Flaubert novel who feels suicidal and looks into the abyss. "Somehow, it gives him enough interest in existence to go on living," says Brottman. "I think this is the kind of mesmerizing compulsion evoked by the Kilpatrick photographs —what Conrad calls 'the fascination of the abomination'—which is, in the end, life-affirming."

I ask Brottman to describe her gut reaction to Kilpatrick's photos. I wonder if she'll say, "Take your fill, ye wretches, of the fair sight."

"The Kilpatrick images are not violent or macabre to me, but peaceful and poignant," Brottman says. "As with crucifixion images, there's a kind of beatitude in the faces of the onlookers, as though seeing the transcendence of death for the first time."

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Can the car crash and the crucifix be seen in the same light? Pastor Fred Plummer of Irvine United Church of Christ doesn't think so.

"The idea of the crucifixion being just a death—like a car crash—misses the point," he says. "The crucified were being punished for an action they took that was an affront to the Roman Empire. What Jesus did was intentional. He died for what he believed in.

"On the other hand," Plummer continues, "if you race down the 405 and crash, the only risk you were taking is driving too fast. That's hardly the same."

But outside the context of social contracts—and through the amoral perspective of Kilpatrick's lens—the crucifix and the crash form a curious parallel. Like the crucifix, the crash is a vehicle of public death—an admonition on a road leading into town. Like the crucifix, the crash is a mechanism for the death of innocence, signaling the rest of us to behold a person just like us—dressed for work or the bowling alley or Cub Scouts or a bar—and come to terms with our mortality. We look at a crash and say to ourselves, "Thank God it wasn't me."

Jesus uttered a similar prayer at his crucifixion: thank God it isn't you.

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After his death in 1962, Kilpatrick's negatives sat in his Santa Ana darkroom for 35 years before falling into the hands of Southern California art dealer and collector Jennifer Dumas. Out of boxes containing more than 5,000 negatives, Dumas compiled a collection she published as Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories, a 176-page coffee table book of the dead. As Kilpatrick might have said, "We can never foresee how we'll be remembered."

"My background is photography," Dumas says, "and especially vernacular photography, which is the current buzzword for accidental art or street photography —art that was made for some purpose other than aesthetic reasons."

For whatever purpose this art was made, Kilpatrick, an unknown Orange County photographer of the 1950s is now a posthumous member of the art scene. He has been called a "West Coast Weegee." But Weegee, a New York news photographer who recorded the seedy side of New York with a Speed Graphic camera in the '30s and '40s, was much more in love with fame. Parlaying his crime scene photography into a career as a photographer for Vogue, Weegee eventually became a technical consultant on a number of Hollywood productions, including Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Kilpatrick, by contrast, was an accidental photographer, a kind of real-life film noir hero who never lived to see his work praised by scenesters. First, they're on the front page of the Santa Ana Register. Then, as if in a pre-mortem flash forward, his photographs are hanging in museums and regarded as companions to the car-crash silk screens of Andy Warhol.

The pop art similarity ends there. Kilpatrick was simply doing his job. Warhol was pursuing celebrity by exploiting the Gawk Effect. Warhol's car-crash canvases, like much of his work in the 1960s, were repeated images. His Five Deaths on Orange or Five Deaths Seventeen Times in Black and White were composed of identical car-crash photographs taken on the streets of New York City. The effect was pop Kilpatrick, and the critics loved it.

"The car's democratic banality reduces those who die in it to unidentified, dishonored statistics, as Warhol realized," said The London Observer's Peter Conrad about Five Deaths on Orange.

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