Arnold Odermatt

Idyllic Dramas

For 50 years, Arnold Odermatt documented traffic accidents on the roads of the Swiss canton of Niwalden. The former first lieutenant was a police photographer and his pictures served as evidence. He considered skilled precision as the absolute basis of his profession: “A good photo is in focus, you have to be able to see everything that you want,” was Odermatt’s creed. His technical equipment consisted of a Rolleiflex camera, a tripod and a magnesium cartridge to illuminate scenes of accidents at night as brightly as if it were day, for a full 13 seconds. In the mid 1990s, when Arnold Odermatt was already a pensioner, the photos he had taken in his professional capacity were discovered by the international art world.

Wrecked cars, asphalt and chalk lines: although Arnold Odermatt’s photographs were exclusively intended for official use, they are a far cry from mere descriptions of facts as befits a police photographer. Some of the crashed cars lie like giant beetles helplessly on their backs, others stare at the camera with one eye gnashing their radiator teeth or have submitted to their fate and try to claim our pity for their state. Odermatt’s gaze does not stop at the damaged vehicles, his shots also catch the ostensibly unimportant surroundings of the scene: a threatening sky, a mountain panorama shrouded in mist, a crowd of onlookers at the scene of an accident. Strange perhaps, or maybe not, that for all the innate destructive element in these crashes, the pictures have nothing spectacular about them: the small dramas which we witness here could at best threaten the idyll of small Swiss towns, but could not undermine them. Odermatt’s world is well kept, orderly and peacefully dented.

Biographical information

1925

born in Oberdorf, Switzerland

1948

enters the policy

2001

participates in the Venice Biennale with his photographs

lives in Stans, Switzerland