The captions assigned to Mell Kilpatrick's photographs in Car Crashes and Other Sad Stories (Taschen) are terse and terrible, models of emotional shorthand: Girl hit and killed. Man run over by a truck. Placentia Ave--decapitation. They are both ridiculously to-the-point, and pointless. Often enough they offer nothing but orientation--the names of streets, intersections, highways--beneath photographs that are nothing if not disorienting.
Kilpatrick was a Southern California beat photographer in the Forties and Fifties, a hard-boiled archetype of the camera ghoul, wired with an almost creepy singleness of purpose. Armed with a police-band radio and a Speed Graphic camera--much like his more famous East Coast contemporary, Weegee--Kilpatrick prowled the night streets and highways of Orange County in search of the sternest of images, calamitous still lifes snatched from scenes of all manner of tragedy. His peculiar specialty--his niche--was car crashes, and out of the booming car culture of postwar America he built the most accidental of careers, becoming in the process a sort of living embodiment of Vaughn, the kink protagonist of J.G. Ballard's novel of auto eroticism, Crash.
Kilpatrick was a late starter: He had worked as a movie projectionist in California and was in his 40s when he started haunting accident scenes, taking photographs initially for insurance companies and the highway patrol. He eventually landed a staff photographer's job at the Santa Ana Register, and he worked in relative anonymity throughout his lifetime, snapping hundreds of photographs in the grim aftermath of murders, suicides, and traffic accidents. After his death in 1962, his negatives lay undiscovered in his darkroom for 35 years before being unearthed by collector Jennifer Dumas.
As an accumulated body of work, Kilpatrick's photographs are certainly shocking; these are images, after all, intended to be diffused by the gauzy, heavily grained filter of newsprint, digested one at a time in the cropped context of a news story, or buried in the exhibit files of law-enforcement agencies and insurance companies. Gathered together in a glossy monograph they are initially startling in their banality. Confronted with image after image of incredible wreckage--impossibly tangled and fractured automobiles and dead bodies, the Rorschach patterns of black blood pooled and splattered--one struggles with an appropriately human response. Initial revulsion gives way to dull fascination. Often you don't know what it is exactly you are looking at, so complex is the mutation of metal, so dense the wreckage, so crowded the frame.
You find yourself leaning closer, suddenly startled by a clenched fist protruding from the confusion of twisted steel and upholstery. That dirty object resting in the gravel alongside the railroad tracks is plainly a bare, severed foot, but it does not seem plausible. The blunt caption of another photograph tells you what you again do not want to believe: that indeterminate heap splayed across the front seat and apparently wearing a jacket is in fact a decapitated human being. There are bodies--often barely recognizable as such--pinned beneath automobiles and trains, burst through windshields, curled up on the floorboards or sprawled in ditches.
The images are often desolate of anything but tragic aftermath. You have the weird sense of Kilpatrick, alone along a dark highway with the wreckage and the dead bodies--the damp giggle of insects roaring from the ditches and fields around him--exploring these private tragedies with his camera, somehow granted this most solitary and creepy of dispensations. In other photos you see police officers and ambulance attendants, poking in the clutter or excavating bodies, onlookers huddled around, blank-faced. Their mute, almost placid expressions reflect your own numb, helpless response: anesthetized wonder at its deepest remove.
Like Weegee, Kilpatrick also had an odd knack for capturing scenes where an incidental detail or backdrop lends ironic commentary to the photo's subject. In one photograph a car, its doors sprung wide open, is smashed up against a stop sign at a railroad crossing; a gasoline billboard across the intersection fills the background with the message Next Time Go Farther. In another photo Kilpatrick shoots an upside-down car through the gaping hole in a billboard through which it has crashed; the billboard is emblazoned with a beer bottle and the slogan, It's Lucky When You Live In America. There is an astonishing picture of a hot rod--the name The Wanderer airbrushed across its fat fender--wrapped around a tree in Laguna Canyon.
Finally, what is most disconcerting about these images is their awful silence. Stripped of all color, animation, and sound--absent even the strobing of emergency lights and the squawk of police radios--the pictures leave you with only the terrible freeze-frame chiaroscuro of a nightmare. These are photographs that almost demand a soundtrack--something dark and fragmented. Something, at any rate, so that you do not have to listen to yourself wheezing with astonishment over every agonizing page. Kilpatrick's photographs bring the viewer face to face with the most helpless rubber-necking impulses of human nature. You look--you have to look, you want to see--but your head instinctively throws up emotional barricades and activates sophisticated filters. Although there is certainly a powerful object lesson in every one of these photographs, after dozens of pages of car-crash photos it is impossible not to recognize how utterly prosaic tragedy is, how dreadfully commonplace. And that, finally, is the most terrifying revelation of these photographs.
Break down the etymology of autopsy and you get "to see with one's own eyes." The images in Car Crashes and Other Sad Stories are definitely autopsy photos, powerful postmortems, and though it's likely that Kilpatrick never imagined them as such, we might as well admit that they are art. Because virtually every one of these photographs offers a nagging variant of the dark truth we spend our lives trying to keep at shadow's length, and the dumb little profundities and commonsense rules of the road that are tattooed in every human heart: This is it. Life is fleeting. Love someone. Don't drink and drive. Buckle up. Call it mortality's ultimate mixed message: Hurry up. Slow down.