The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Arnold Odermatt’s Car Wrecks


‘Once upon a time, there was a Swiss policeman named Arnold Odermatt, whose photographs long went unnoticed, but who then achieved international recognition when the photographer himself was past retirement age. Born into a family of eleven children in the canton of Nidwalden in 1925 – his father was a forester – Arnold Odermatt initially apprenticed as a baker and pastry cook. He was forced to leave that profession, however, because of an allergy, and by chance he ended up joining the cantonal police, where he spent the next forty years. He was responsible in particular for road safety in this little canton isolated in the middle of Switzerland, hemmed in by the Alps and Lake Lucerne.

‘At the age of ten, Arnold Odermatt won a camera in a competition and taught himself how to use it, which grew into what can only be called a passion for photography. He took his twin-lens Rolleiflex with him wherever he went, photographing the people and landscapes of the region and later his wife and children. He also incorporated photography into his day-to-day work, using it to document traffic accidents, which were quite common at the time.

‘However, Odermatt’s hobby was met with indifference by those around him, and for fifty years he captured tens of thousands of images which, carefully stored and organized, languished in his attic, until one day in the early 1990s, his son, Urs Odermatt, himself a director and filmmaker, came upon them. The retired policeman’s photographs were published in a book edited by his son, and recognition for the work grew steadily. Exhibited in 1998 at police headquarters in Frankfurt am Main during the Frankfurt Book Fair, the black and white images of vehicles damaged in accidents caught the attention of the celebrated curator Harald Szeemann, who showed them at the Venice Biennale in 2001. From that point on, the Swiss policeman’s photographs were internationally acclaimed. Three books were published by Steidl, one of the most prominent publishers in the photography world, and his images were exhibited by numerous museums and galleries in Europe and the United States.

‘All of the prerequisites were in place for the creation of an ‘Odermatt legend’ that would be especially attractive to the contemporary art world. Like Eugène Atget, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and Miroslav Tichý, Odermatt belongs to that special category of ‘outsiders’ discovered late in life, cut off from the art world and unconcerned with concepts or declarations of intent. As a figure of ‘artistic innocence,’ he compels us to question the shifting boundaries between art and non-art, between art and art brut or ‘outsider art.’ Arnold Odermatt’s work is difficult to categorize because it seems to include both applied professional photography when he is ‘on duty’ as well as amateur photography when he is ‘off duty.’ What is certain is that the power and originality of his images, in contrast with his complete absence of formal artistic training and his long isolation, problematize what may be called ‘artistic intention’ and its role in the quality of the images produced. Is a self-taught photographer with no formal training who has never called his images ‘art’ therefore devoid of Kunstwollen? Because it is so difficult to make assumptions about intentions that are not expressed as a conceptualized and verbalized desire to ‘make art,’ I will consider the unrecognized character of Arnold Odermatt’s practice, but will do so without using terms like ‘naïve’ or ‘outsider,’ which are too fraught with connotations and too reductive. In what follows, I will suggest that these belatedly recognized artists be referred to as unsanctioned artists (artistes non-homologués). This term is an indirect reference to one of Dubuffet’s earliest essays on art brut; it makes it possible to group together the various ‘irregular’6 practices by virtue of their contrast with official art world channels, without, however, stigmatizing them by setting up a dualism in which art is opposed to non-art. The term ‘sanction’ signals official recognition, but does it alter the nature of what it consecrates?

‘The contrast between images that satisfy the art world’s expectations in terms of their quality and a photographer who stubbornly refused to seek any kind of critical recognition for his work seems to endow Odermatt’s practice with an obvious appeal as something ‘instinctive’ and ‘authentic.’’ — Caroline Recher



Arnold Odermatt Website
AO @ Galerie Springer
‘Arnold Odermatt – Beyond the Seven Mountains’
‘Karambolage (Smash-up)’
AO reviewed @ Frieze



Arnold Odermatt – Die Ästhetik der Karambolage

Arnold Odermatt – Rasthaus

Arnold Odermatt und John Waters – Fotomuseum Winterthur

Trailer: ‘Crash Course: The Accidental Art of Arnold Odermatt’


Other works




‘Arnold Odermatt the Nidwalden Police in 1948. He was forced to give up his original career as a bakery and pastry chef on health grounds. As the policeman Arnold Odermatt first appeared with his Rolleiflex at the scene of an accident – to provide photos to complement the police report, people found this rather disconcerting. At that time, photography was anything other than an independent means of providing the police with evidence.

‘A colleague observed Arnold Odermatt as he took pictures for the force and was suspicious. He was ordered to report to his commander immediately. Odermatt managed to convince his superiors of the pioneering work he was doing. They allowed him to convert an old toilet in an observation post in Stans into a makeshift dark room. When the observation post was moved into another building several years later, Switzerland’s first police photographer was given his own laboratory.

‘Arnold Odermatt’s biggest role model was the famous Magnum photographer Werner Bischof. He met him once by chance, as he was on security duty on the Bürgenstock and wanted to photograph Charlie Chaplin. Odermatt’s own style was characterised by sobriety and authenticity. The spartan linguistic expression of his police reports can also be found in Odermatt’s images. His craftsmanship is beyond question, nothing of note is missed by his photographic eye. In KARAMBOLAGE, his most famous series of work, you can’t see the maimed victims but you do see the ethereal, surreal sculptures of scrap metal. With the softness and melancholy of Jacques Tati, he looks at the consequences of speed and the hectic nature of modern times.

‘For 40 years, Arnold Odermatt captured the daily work of the Nidwalden police force. It was only rarely that the local press, the court or an insurance company were interested in his photos. It was only when his son, the film and theatre director Urs Odermatt, showed the photos in for the first time at a solo exhibition in Frankfurt am Main that the art scene first became interested in his work. After the inspiring exhibition, the photo book Meine Welt followed. Suddenly the everyday observations from the central Swiss province had gained the same status as those of his well-travelled predecessor, Werner Bischof.

‘At an early stage in his police career, when Arnold used the camera to catalogue traffic accidents, this was a revolutionary innovation in the Swiss police. If Arnold Odermatt were to turn up at a crime scene with his camera today, he could expect to be told that photography was not for him, but was instead the job of a specially trained police photographer.’ — collaged


Arnold Odermatt – Prominenz auf dem Bürgenstock.













































































p.s. Hey. ** JM, Hi. For absolute sure. Mm, yeah, beneficial depending, I guess. Not in my current circumstance which is just a lesson unnecessarily re-re-learned. I saw that ‘Thor’ on a plane. I was, like, pleasured by it. I don’t remember it hardly at all. I think it was ‘funnier’ intentionally than the previous two? I’m so ignorant on comic book-related stuff that I can’t tell Marvel movies from DC movies. Have not seen ‘Unsane’, want to. I love Wes Anderson. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers. Jay Wright … doesn’t ring a bell. I’ll check. Okey-doke, great, and thanks for the tip on that poetry book. That sounds really good. I’ll hop at it. That was pretty good news, actually, all in all. Well, good to read, rangy and detailed where it mattered, good combo. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Huh, never heard of that phenom movie. I’ll at least give it a solid beginner look. Cliff DeYoung! Before he was a character actor, he was the lead singer of one of the great, under-sung LA 60s psychedelic bands, Clear Light. ** Steve Erickson, No, it didn’t sound like that. Well, yeah, snap judgements based on third hand blah-blah is practically the oxygen a ton of people breathe these days. I heard the Arctic Monkeys single. It was a surprise. I might go further. I’ve always hoped to try to figure out why there’s a reasonably sizeable contingent that thinks Alex Turner is some kind of genius because I’ve never heard any evidence pointing in that direction. ** Jamie, Wassup, bud. I’m tired too. My body clock is in one of its fascist phases where it wakes me up between 6 and 6:30 am no matter what time I go to sleep the night before, and the little daily nips at my sleep cycle have started to add up this morning. Oh, that’s cool about the ladder. Like minds. Dig. The producer shit is just … yeah. But the good thing is that not a half-hour ago we finally, finally submitted the finish TV series script and Note of Intention to her. Now we’ll have to harass her to send it on to ARTE and not diddle about giving us her useless feedback. Anyway, we’re almost out of her frying pan and into ARTE’s fire! And now Zac and I get to go back to finishing our film script, which is pretty much all I think about and want to do. I hope your Friday hits you like a giant snort of crystal meth without the meth. Pandemic love, Dennis. ** Damien Ark, Hi, Damien, always good to see you, sir. Dude, gigantic congrats on finishing the final draft! That’s mega, the most mega! I’ve never used a grammar correction function. I don’t think I knew that there was such a thing. Weird. I hope it works. Yeah, I think people want to get things in Word. I’m not sure if I even have OpenOffice. I think not? Let me see if anyone has any thoughts/advice. Everyone, Here’s the fine writer and guy Damien Ark with a shout out for advice from anyone who might have some re: sending out fiction re: apps. Help him? Damien: ‘I don’t even really know what a story is supposed to look like when you send it to someone either, so that’s a barrier. I’m more comfortable with OpenOffice, but I imagine everyone likes Word (so un-aesthetically pleasing). If anyone else has advice or ideas, please help!!! AHHHHH!!!!!’ Thanks about the new gif book. It’s not a novel, it’s a book of stories. Ha ha, ‘Bioshock with emo twinks’ it isn’t, I fear, bit that’s giving me ideas. Maybe a film. Oooh. ** Wolf, Sup is sup, and you? Oh, oops, space out: you haven’t moved yet, duh, sorry. Put all that stuff up, all of it, it sounds dreamy. You can turn your new apt. into the London satellite of Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature! Hardly anything on my walls. I’ve been meaning/planning to go to the store for weeks to buy frames so I can put up the posters for ‘PGL’ and ‘LCTG’. Right now, let’s see, I only have a photo by Gisele of a boy mannequin/star of ‘Kindertotenlieder’ that she based on George Miles and a small photo by the artist Frances Stark consisting of an image of her and Charles Ray. Maybe I’ll finally buy those frames today. Yeah, maybe really I will. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. How’s every old and new thing? ** Misanthrope, Hey. Early heads up, but you should plan to go back to NYC in around mid-September for reasons I can not explain yet but will soon. Yeah, looking forward to meeting the legendary LPS in June. Me too, I’m tired today. It’s going to be a long day. Bleah. I don’t think my today will be a beast, but you really never know, do you? I’ll take along my beastliness geiger counter. Yours too. Really big beast of a day. ** Bill, Me too, coincidentally or not. If you ever get the chance to see the Katsune Miku vocaloid opera ‘The End’, absolutely drop everything else and do so. It was easily one of the most insane things I have ever seen, and I’ve seen my fair share of performative insanity. I say poke. ** Okay. Gosh, I don’t know, I semi-randomly thought I would throw this post out at you today and see what interest it accrues. See you tomorrow.


  1. Dennis!! Oh boy oh boy. This guy, whoa. Consider all my boxes ticked. Fantastic stuff. I’m really not sure about the whole ‘amateur photographer’ angle: of course you can learn formal photography at art school but clearly on the technical side this guy knew all he needed to already, and the finely tuned eye for composition is just grafted onto that. Forensic photography is a half-science half-fiction-craft hybrid: all about capturing detail as well as narrative. Wheat from chaff. ‘Sorry you couldn’t be there but here’s a postcard. PS time of death 15:33.’ Calling this guy an amateur is like calling any of the great photo-reporters amateurs. ‘Is it art?’: the most boring debate known to culture. Car crashes are just begging to be photographed, though, more than any other accident. The road: the ultimate frame. Black strip, white/yellow lines, cuts the land, contrast turned up to 11… already the ideal image. And then the car, following it, linear, cleanly located on the clean lines, all gleaming reflective surfaces and angles (especially cars pre-80s) and then boom. Veers off the frame and its own lines are also broken. Visually, it’s perfect. All the elements are still present in the image but they’ve been displaced. Randomly. (You can’t fake an accident because its dynamics are random and artificial randomness is always too clean. That’s why stormy waters and fire are so hard to recreate in CGI). The way he looks down at the road in some of those is such skilled storytelling; and the space is cut so well. (Why, yes, Crash is my favourite book, why do you ask?). There is a satisfaction in a perfectly composed photograph that very few other media can come close to. I think. Well, anyhoo. That was lovely. Hugs from rainy Provence (wtf right?).

  2. David Ehrenstein

    May 18, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    Odermatt is right up J.G. Ballard’s alley. Also Andy’ in his “Fashion and Disaster” series.

  3. The textures of the color photos are quite striking: they scream “1950s or 1960s,” beyond the hairstyles or clothes of their subjects, due to the photo stock of the time, which now looks quite stylized.

    The New Zealand band Wax Chattels, who describe themselves as a “guitar-free guitar band,” released their debut album today. They’re heavily influenced by Suicide, with their keyboard player often using the droning garage-punk organ tone of Martin Rev on Suicide’s first album, but unlike Vega and Rev, they use a really muscular live rhythm section. The bass is so distorted that although they live up to their slogan by not using electric guitar, it sounds like one. The drumming is really propulsive, although judging from the live clips, their drummer’s kit is stripped down to a hi-hat, snare drum, ride cymbal and kick drum. This is the first Flying Nun release (licensed to the label Captured Tracks in the US) I’ve heard since the last Chills album, although they reactivated the company a few years ago.

    • Also, I assume you’ve heard the new Malkmus album. I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but “Middle America” is my single favorite solo song by him.

      I get really frustrated with the atmosphere around discussion of film and music right now, especially on social media, where it seems like nobody enjoys talking about things they actually like and appreciate but everyone gets a big kick out of attacking films or filmmakers they hate for being overrated and/or having bad politics. I would like something like the Chinese film ANGELS WEAR WHITE, which I think is one of the best films that played New York in 2018 but closed here in a week, to enter “the conversation” about film in our culture. Yet 90% of that conversation seems so debased and reactionary (not necessarily in a directly political sense, more like taking endless 280-character potshots at films that are popular with audiences or more mainstream critics) yet I feel like I have to keep participating it to keep going as anything approaching a professional film critic. At the same time, alternative spaces to FB and Twitter seem really debased as well. I’d like to talk with people about the music I like, which is quite eclectic, and there’s a music message board I post on, but the surest way to make myself get ignored there is to post about a black musician. It’s worth questioning the current “rock is dying/dead” ethos, but if you freak out at the prospect of a music festival booking a more eclectic lineup that includes Janet Jackson instead of absolutely nothing but indie rock bands to a degree that extends to charges of social engineering and a bunch of right wing buzzwords, it’s possible you have issues beyond mere taste. There’s also a hip-hop message board I peruse which seems to be the mirror image; obviously, no one complains about posts on black music, but when every single person there hates Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video and Kendrick Lamar and prefers Roc Marciano, it seems to go from a healthy skepticism of hype to reflexively despising everything mainstream, critically and commercially popular and wallowing in nostalgia for ’90s hip-hop and contemporary music that sounds like it. (The best thing about the board is that people post download links to ’90s hip-hop rarities.) Sorry for ranting at such length, but I feel increasingly alienated and isolated in this culture, especially since I’m trying to express myself about film and music as best and loudly as I can in it and find more work doing so in such a weird climate.

  4. I love the Volkswagen in the lake, and all the squiggly Miro-esque tire tracks. What a beautiful collection.

    Will definitely keep an eye out for The End, Dennis. In a sleepy burst of obsession last night, I started some poking around. The commercial demos online mostly don’t sound so great, and have annoying artifacts. I’m surprised the open-source tools I was playing with years ago actually sounded ok in comparison, though they needed a lot more obsessive tweaking. But that’s why we have our obsessions, right?

    Actually, this is pretty impressive (a Klaus Nomi demo, ha!):

    Good to hear the producer drama might be wrapping up!


  5. Somewhat related to today’s topic: Dennis, last night I had a dream where I was back in college and in a film class and you were the professor. You were showing us this film on a big screen that looked like surveillance camera footage that one sees taken from street light cameras. In this film we could see a street at night, and parked along the sidewalk on the lower right-hand side of the screen was a truck, and, parked in front of it, a van. A man exited the van and was talking to the truck driver when suddenly another van shot out from out of nowhere and hit the man, who flipped up into the air and landed right on top of his (bald) head. When he rose to his feet, dazed, the back of his head slid right off and his brains started spilling out onto the street (at this point I shut my eyes in disgust). When I opened them again, there was a woman by the side of the man’s corpse, calling 9-11. For some reason, one of her legs was extended outwards, as if she were striking a hieratic pose. Suddenly another van shot forward and hit her leg, amputating it clean off and sending it spinning into the air. After this there was a jump-cut and you showed us a film of a burning building: people were fleeing the building, their bodies covered in flames, and they collapsed to the street, their corpses blackened cinders. At this point the students began fleeing from the class, myself included, ha ha.

  6. I was reading Odermatt’s bio and thinking of Pecker when lo, up pops John Waters and it all makes a lot of sense. These are some stunning photos and I’m happy the guy was discovered.

    Still in Leeds here, and today I went with my mum to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where we saw In My Shoes, a group show of self-portraiture from the 90s YBA crowd to now. There was some interesting work, much that was overly familiar but still, nice to spent a short while with the 2015 Rachel Maclean film Feed Me that remains satisfyingly ambitious and grand-scale.

    I’m still focused on the Yuck ‘n Yum Compendium/Interregnum Day for this blog. I’ve been doing all the behind the scenes stuff like paying artists and setting up PayuPal for the YNY website too but yeah, it should all be emailed your way next week.

  7. Hi Dennis – thanks so much! I sent you information at that email address. I added some photos and it was about 9MB so let me know if you don’t receive it. I love Odermatt’s photos! I actually discovered them through a Tortoise box set of b-sides and rarities. It’s a beautiful 4-disc set and each disc has a different car crash photo. It prompted me to research Arnold a bit and I bought the giant Steidl book for my boyfriend as a present one year. We almost have a running joke of who can buy each other the biggest book haha. I am well, thanks for asking. 🙂 I finished my PhD a few years ago, researching and writing about the visual culture of skateboarding. Trying to write and publish stuff now alongside my full-time day job. I hope you’re doing great! xoxo Dr. Wilfred Brandt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2021 DC's

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑