Sunday, February 04, 2007

Arnold Odermatt - Swiss Policeman

Throughout his career with the Swiss Police, amateur photographer Arnold Odermatt took photographs both for himself and for his work.

He joined the Canton of Nidwalden police 1948 and remained with them until he retired in 1990 as Head of the Traffic Police and Deputy Commander of the Nidwalden police. It's only since his retirement that he has experienced new found celebrity as a photographer. First with his book Karambolage and now a new book On Duty.

Karambolage is about traffic accidents; "Odermatt was the first officer in Switzerland to begin documenting these tragic scenes on film, and he created two distinct bodies of work. Setting his tripod on the roof of a police van, he first shot a series of straightforward images to accompany accident reports and on-site police drawings. Hours later, when onlookers had gone and most traces of violence had been cleared away, he returned to make a final, more highly aestheticized portrait of the wrecked vehicles." At night he often photographed the scenes using a magnesium flare, turning night into day.

In On Duty "Odermatt used his camera to recreate scenes from his days in law enforcement, spurred on by the fears of the shrinking Nidwalden police force, in hopes of enticing the village youth to join its increasingly unfashionable ranks. On Duty collects these images, which are populated by Odermatt’s colleagues re-enacting their daily adventures, in a compelling sequence of colourful tableaux. It is a strange and impressive document offering unexpected insight into a hidden world".

Perhaps it's because at one time I was a policeman and took similar photographs, or possibly because I've also driven in Switzerland where the inhabitants often seem to drive like maniacs on winding mountain roads - I'm not quite sure - but there is something about this work that I like. Photography is always evidence of something, yet here, where photography is perhaps closest to being used to record "fact" it still very quickly and easily moves away from being merely evidence. And while there is a formal rigour to the work, there is also a fondness (if you can say that about accidents?) and a sense of affection and melancholy. I certainly find them strangely appealing.

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