Car Crash Fetish

The art of Register photographer Mell Kilpatrick

Wrong. Warhol wanted our attention. His compositions weren't about "democratic banality." They were about Leontius's fair sight. Warhol could easily have achieved the same effect if he had decided to reproduce Five Crucifixions Seventeen Times in Black and White.


Photo by Mell Kilpatrick, courtesy of
Ape Pen Publishing (www.apepenpublishing.com)

* * *

Kilpatrick's photographs are also cultural companions to J.G. Ballard's book Crash. Ballard created a neo-Gothic world in which collision videos replace pornography, celebrity car crashes are ritualized, and sex in and around accident scenes is a kind of underground entertainment. Ballard, like Warhol, exploited Leontius's Gawk Effect. In Crash, a crowd fills the seats at the reenactment of James Dean's car-crash death as if it were an Easter Mass. After all, what would a crucifixion be without an audience? But Crash is better remembered for mixing wrecks and sex—maybe wrex? This auto-erotic combination was celebrated in pop music with Daniel Miller's Crash-inspired song "Warm Leatherette." What hip, young '80s romantic couldn't croon, "The hand brake penetrates your thigh—quick: let's make love before you die"?

While the aesthetic of "Warm Leatherette" was the mere collision of animal and intellectual, Ballard believed that our world was fast becoming a victim of its own machinery. "We live in a world that is now entirely artificial," Ballard said. As a result of this artifice, Crash's characters lose touch. Their senses become cross-wired and shorted-out. In this benumbed state, emotions are illusory. Encounters with the face of death are played out in mind games, entertainment and, yes, sex because it's one of the few other psychological spaces—besides death—where language stops.

Cyberpunk doom aside, though, it's hard to say that we ever speak to the face of death, unless, of course, we're dead. So I wonder: Is Ballard giving an overdose of technology too much credit? Is this really the reason we're silent in death's presence? The answer is in Kilpatrick's photographs.

* * *

I visited Kilpatrick's granddaughter Carlene Thie at her ranch-style home in Mira Loma a few months ago. We sat at the kitchen table, ate banana bread and sorted through his car-crash negatives.

"I sold the most gruesome ones," she said. "They brought a bad vibe to the house."

Kilpatrick didn't especially like his crash scenes, either. Carlene told me he was a reluctant photographer of car fatalities. "It was just a job," she said.

On staff at the Register, Kilpatrick took tens of thousands of photographs —grand openings, parades, celebrity and official photo opportunities ad nauseum. His real love was his Disneyland photography—which Thie self-published in three volumes (www.apepenpublishing.com).

But his car-crash photographs remain best known. Something unique is expressed in these images—a singular reverence made apparent when the audience witnesses the vanishing point of life. It's an element of the crucifixion we've stripped away from mainstream Christianity—the moment when the crowd confronts the tortured, lifeless body of Jesus and stares in silence. Mikita Brottman says, "The power of the Kilpatrick images communicates something beyond language. They're more powerful than other images of atrocity precisely because of the presence of the observers."

These observers exist outside of any cultural framework. Within the vacuum of the car-crash crucifixion, they've lost their social moorings. In Kilpatrick's photos, there are no heroes or allegiances or patriotism or beliefs—no Action News Team or God or country or embedded journalist. There's only the space between the observer and death.

"What the observers are seeing is something they can never live to talk about," Brottman says. "So witnessing death like this has the quality of a dream. It reveals the frightening truth that there are some things we can never communicate, which raises the question of whether we can ever really communicate anything. As [Joseph] Conrad said, 'We live as we dream: alone.'"


Killpatrick: A portrait of the artist as an old man
Photo courtesy of
Ape Pen Publishing (www.apepenpublishing.com)

* * *

I flash back to that Pontiac on the 405 whenever I leaf through Kilpatrick's car-crash photos. There, I'm part of the crowd that's gawking at the crucifixion. When the tanker truck driver opens the car door, the audience in the long line of passing cars gawks at the Pontiac's lifeless display: a shattered femur protrudes through a pant leg, drops of dark maroon trickle to the floor mat, a distorted face with scalp pulled back from its forehead—as if blowing in the rushing wind—rests on the luminescent dash. Here in my own Mell Kilpatrick moment, the dead have risen from the boundaries of circumstance.

They have risen, and the angels rejoice.

They have risen, and I am witness.

They have risen, and life is affirmed.

To them—in the gaze of Mell Kilpatrick's lens—be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

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