Crash crucifixion: The Art of OC Register Photographer Mell Kilpatrick
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
at a New Age crucifixion. It's a Mell Kilpatrick moment.
the 1950s, Kilpatrick cruised the two-lane roads of neo-natal
Orange County with his police-band radio and Speed
looking for crashes to capture on film. In the formative years
of Southern California's car culture, his beat was the aftermath
highway tragedy. Reflections of bent metal, dead bodies and
Kilpatrick's photos, like Byzantine crucifixion panels, bring
us face to face with our mortality. Tempted to turn away, we stare
fascination. His frames, frozen in time, suggest that if the crucifixion
points to the blessing of forgiveness, the crash points to the
story of Mell Kilpatrick is about circumstance. If he were alive
today, he might say life is a series of unexpected
we can never foresee how we'll be remembered.
was born in Arcola, Illinois, in 1902. An only child, he helped
the heavy lifting at the age of 10, when his
to Idaho in a covered wagon. They settled in the city of Windor,
where his father, James Henry, opened a slaughterhouse. Mell
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
his wife, Katherine. There, he landed a job playing the local
the Dianna Ballroom to the Balboa Pavilion. All the while,
he helped raise a family of five. Life was good.
Kilpatrick's fortunes changed forever, re-routed by a case of
hygiene. Flossing might have led Kilpatrick
a different road, but in 1947, periodontal disease prompted
removal of all
his teeth. It was the kiss of death for a professional horn
player. By 1948, the dentured Kilpatrick found himself commuting
his Santa Ana home to his new job as projectionist at the
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
as he watched. The car was a part of movie language, a symbol
escape, climax and danger.
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
a friend's suggestion and began shooting. It wasn't like
playing coronet, but photography was a paying gig.
first, he photographed evidence for insurance companies, then
for the Highway Patrol. They were modern-day
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
like a paraplegic David through the shattered window toward
the gathered crowd outside. Click.
another road, in 400 BC, Leontius, the son of a nobleman, came
to an intersection and confronted a similar scene.
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.
this the Gawk Effect.
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.'"
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.
was a student of the Gawk Effect. One day, the legend goes,
he appeared unannounced
at the Santa
Ana Register with
an envelope of death scenes in his hand.
They made him a staff photographer.
worked an 80-hour week to make a living wage. On call day and
was at the top
County law enforcement and fire department
call list, including the coroner's
In the darkroom, he wore a blue technician's
coat and carefully placed each negative
in an envelope
title: Wreck — Chapman and
Tustin. Fatality — Grand and La
Habra. Fatality — Crystal
Cove. Wreck — Los Alamitos. Fatality — Harbor
an enormous cultural taboo around Kilpatrick's images because
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.
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
in the face, both in the 'triumphalism
of the survivor' and
in the inspiration the encounter
recalls the character in a Gustave Flaubert
novel who feels
looks into the abyss. "Somehow,
it gives him enough interest in
existence to go on living," says
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."
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."
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
seeing the transcendence of
death for the first time."
the car crash and the crucifix be seen in the
same light? Pastor
idea of the crucifixion being just a death — like a car
crash — misses
the point," he
crucified were being
punished for an action
that was an affront
to the Roman Empire.
Jesus did was intentional.
He died for what he
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
outside the context of social contracts — and
through the amoral
Kilpatrick's lens — the crucifix
and the crash
form a curious parallel.
Like the crucifix,
the crash is a
vehicle of public death — an
a road leading into town.
Like the crucifix,
the crash is a
mechanism for the death of innocence,
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.
look at a crash
and say to ourselves, "Thank
God it wasn't
uttered a similar
God it isn't
his death in 1962, Kilpatrick's
sat in his
Santa Ana darkroom
and collector Jennifer Dumas.
Crashes & Other Sad Stories, a 176-page coffee
table book of the dead. As Kilpatrick might have said, "We
foresee how we'll be remembered."
background is photography," Dumas says, "and especially
photography, which is the current buzzword for accidental art or street photography —art
made for some purpose
than aesthetic reasons."
art was made,
1950s is now
of the art
a "West Coast Weegee." But Weegee,
a New York news photographer
the seedy side of
with a Speed Graphic
in the '30s and '40s,
scene photography into
career as a photographer for
Weegee eventually became
technical consultant on a number of
productions, including Stanley
kind of real-life
of the Santa
photographs are hanging
regarded as companions
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.
weren't about "democratic
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.
pornography, celebrity car crashes
and sex — maybe wrex? This auto-erotic combination
was celebrated in pop music with Daniel Miller's Crash-inspired
Leatherette. What hip, young '80s romantic couldn't
hand brake penetrates your thigh — quick: let's
make love before you die"?
of "Warm Leatherette" was the mere collision
of animal and intellectual, Ballard believed that
our world was fast becoming a victim of its own
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
played out in mind games, entertainment
and, yes, sex because it's one of the few other
spaces — besides
death — where
sold the most gruesome ones," she said. "They
brought a bad vibe to the
especially like his crash
either. Carlene told me
he was a reluctant
photographer of car
was just a job," she
photographs — grand
celebrity and official
ad nauseum. His real
love was his Disneyland
photography — which
images — a singular
when the audience
witnesses the vanishing
point of life.
It's an element of the
stripped away from
mainstream Christianity — the
moment when the
body of Jesus and
stares in silence.
power of the
more powerful than
of atrocity precisely
because of the presence
or beliefs — no
Team or God
There's only the
"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.'"
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
the car door, the audience in the long line of passing cars
gawks at the Pontiac's lifeless display: a shattered femur
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.
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.
— Nathan Callahan,
April 17, 2003