Car Crash Fetish

The art of Register photographer Mell Kilpatrick


Harbor & Garden Grove, truck wreck
Photo by Mell Kilpatrick, courtesy of
Ape Pen Publishing (www.apepenpublishing.com)
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 Rotten.com 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.

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."

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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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