Car Crash Fetish

The art of Register photographer Mell Kilpatrick


During the 1950s, Kilpatrick cruised the two-lane roads of neo-natal Orange County with his police-band radio and Speed Graphic camera, looking for crashes to capture on film. In the formative years of Southern California's car culture, his beat was the aftermath of highway tragedy. Reflections of bent metal, dead bodies and broken glass, Kilpatrick's photos, like Byzantine crucifixion panels, bring us face to face with our mortality. Tempted to turn away, we stare with wary fascination. His frames, frozen in time, suggest that if the crucifixion points to the blessing of forgiveness, the crash points to the blessing of circumstance.

The story of Mell Kilpatrick is about circumstance. If he were alive today, he might say life is a series of unexpected turns that prove we can never foresee how we'll be remembered.

Kilpatrick was born in Arcola, Illinois, in 1902. An only child, he helped with the heavy lifting at the age of 10, when his family moved to Idaho in a covered wagon. They settled in the city of Windor, where his father, James Henry, opened a slaughterhouse. Mell wasn't prepared 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 California with his wife, Katherine. There, he landed a job playing the local circuit —from the Dianna Ballroom to the Balboa Pavilion. All the while, he helped raise a family of five. Life was good.

Then Kilpatrick's fortunes changed forever, re-routed by a case of bad oral hygiene. Flossing might have led Kilpatrick down a different road, but in 1947, periodontal disease prompted the removal of all his teeth. It was the kiss of death for a professional horn player. By 1948, the dentured Kilpatrick found himself commuting from his Santa Ana home to his new job as projectionist at the West Coast, 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 the screen as he watched. The car was a part of movie language, a symbol of escape, climax and danger.

The 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 on a friend's suggestion and began shooting. It wasn't like playing coronet, but photography was a paying gig.

At first, he photographed evidence for insurance companies, accidents for the Highway Patrol. They were modern-day memento mori—stark, 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 hand reaching like a paraplegic David through the shattered window toward the gathered crowd outside.

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Kilpatrick 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.

Kilpatrick worked an 80-hour week to make a living wage. On call day and night, his phone number was at the top of every Orange County law enforcement and fire department call list, including the coroner's office.

In the darkroom, he wore a blue technician's coat and carefully placed each negative in an envelope with a title: Wreck—Chapman and Tustin Fatality—Grand and La Habra Fatality—Crystal Cove. Wreck—Los Alamitos. Fatality—Harbor Boulevard.

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There's an enormous cultural taboo around Kilpatrick's images because death in 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.

"In 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 death in the face, both in the 'triumphalism of the survivor' and in the inspiration the encounter provides."

Brottman recalls the character in a Gustave Flaubert novel who feels suicidal and looks into the abyss. "Somehow, it gives him enough interest in existence to go on living," says Brottman. "I 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."

I 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."

"The 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 the onlookers, as though seeing the transcendence of death for the first time."

* * *

Can the car crash and the crucifix be seen in the same light? Pastor Fred Plummer of Irvine United Church of Christ doesn't think so.

"The idea of the crucifixion being just a death—like a car crash—misses the point," he says. "The crucified were being punished for an action they took that was an affront to the Roman Empire. What Jesus did was intentional. He died for what he believed in.

"On 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 the same."

But outside the context of social contracts—and through the amoral perspective of Kilpatrick's lens—the crucifix and the crash form a curious parallel. Like the crucifix, the crash is a vehicle of public death—an admonition on a road leading into town. Like the crucifix, the crash is a mechanism for the death of innocence, signaling the 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. We look at a crash and say to ourselves, "Thank God it wasn't me."

Jesus uttered a similar prayer at his crucifixion: thank God it isn't you.

* * *

For whatever purpose this art was made, Kilpatrick, an unknown Orange County photographer of the 1950s is now a posthumous member of the art scene. He has been called a "West Coast Weegee." But Weegee, a New York news photographer who recorded the seedy side of New York with a Speed Graphic camera in the '30s and '40s, was much more in love with fame. Parlaying his crime scene photography into a career as a photographer for Vogue, Weegee eventually became a technical consultant on a number of Hollywood productions, including Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Kilpatrick, by contrast, was an accidental photographer, a kind of real-life film noir hero who never lived to see his work praised by scenesters. First, they're on the front page of the Santa Ana Register. Then, as if in a pre-mortem flash forward, his photographs are hanging in museums and regarded as companions to the car-crash silk screens of Andy Warhol.

The pop art similarity ends there. Kilpatrick was simply doing his job. Warhol was pursuing celebrity by exploiting the Gawk Effect. Warhol's car-crash canvases, like much of his work in the 1960s, were repeated images. His Five Deaths on Orange or Five Deaths Seventeen Times in Black and White were composed of identical car-crash photographs taken on the streets of New York City. The effect was pop Kilpatrick, and the critics loved it.

"The 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.

Wrong. Warhol wanted our attention. His compositions weren't about "democratic banality." They 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.

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I visited Kilpatrick's granddaughter Carlene Thie at her ranch-style home in Mira Loma a few months ago. We sat at the kitchen table, ate banana bread and sorted through his car-crash negatives.

"I sold the some gruesome ones," she said. "They brought a bad vibe to the house."

Kilpatrick didn't especially like his crash scenes, either. Carlene told me he was a reluctant photographer of car fatalities. "It was just a job," she said.

On staff at the Register, Kilpatrick took tens of thousands of photographs —grand openings, parades, celebrity and official photo opportunities ad nauseum. His real love was his Disneyland photography—which Thie self-published in three volumes (

But his car-crash photographs remain best known. Something unique is expressed in these images—a singular reverence made apparent when the audience witnesses the vanishing point of life. It's an element of the crucifixion we've stripped away from mainstream Christianity—the moment when the crowd confronts the tortured, lifeless body of Jesus and stares in silence. Mikita Brottman says, "The power of the Kilpatrick images communicates something beyond language. They're more powerful than other images of atrocity precisely because of the presence of the observers."

These observers exist outside of any cultural framework. Within the vacuum of the car-crash crucifixion, they've lost their social moorings. In Kilpatrick's photos, there are no heroes or allegiances or patriotism or beliefs—no Action News Team or God or country or embedded journalist. There's only the space between the observer and death.

"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.'"

* * *

I 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 driver opens the car door, the audience in the long line of passing cars gawks at the Pontiac's lifeless display: a shattered femur protrudes 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.

Car Crash Fetish

Mell Kilpatrick

His career as a news photographer began in 1948 and he eventually became the chief photographer for the Orange County Register - then called Santa Ana Register. Having already established a rapport with the local community Mell was the perfect guy to get the perfect angle. As one of Orange County’s best-known cameramen, he covered Orange County in every possible manner by air, on foot, by car, and even by boat.

At first, he photographed evidence for insurance companies,the corners, as well accidents for the Highway Patrol; even carrying a police badge to access the crime scenes.. They were modern-day memento, black-and-white documents of death.

Mell’s style so was unique,that it captured Walt Disney attention. While Disney had all the machinery at hand to build castles and rivers, one thing Walt didn’t have was a place for his staff to develop their photographs. As luck would have it, Mell was on the spot and granted Walt’s staff unlimited access his darkroom. A local place to develop official Disney photographers photos. The park’s first images were developed in Mell’s Santa Ana darkroom.

Having done this, a friendship-business relationship began to develop. Walt then opened the castle drawbridge and gave Mell unlimited access to the park, during construction and throughout the early years of Disneyland a privilege not granted to others outside the parks only Disney own photographers.

Mell worked relentlessly to capture on film Walt Disney’s dream. He climbed atop scaffolding, crawled into tunnels, even hung out of a light plane 5,000 feet above Disneyland to snap the perfect shot.

Mell Kilpatrick covered the park from the first spade of dirt being shoveled, to the uprooting of the orange trees, all the way to the completion of the park. He was there for the infamous opening day, known as Black Sunday. Mell had a unique eye for photography, and reported the news in a timely fashion. His skills and know how helped him to continue his coverage, of the park while writing about the inside world of Disneyland.

Of the many Disneyland articles written by Mell, one in particularly caught my eye. Published in the July 15th, 1955 Santa Ana Register - two days before the official opening of the Park under the title: ‘All Employees Schooled’

Pictured are a few of the 1100 employees who attended orientation classes before assuming their duties at Walt Disney’s magic kingdom. The importance of good manners and good grooming, along with correct handling of jobs under discussion is stressed. The accompanying photograph captures a Disneyland employee’s orientation class. Sitting in the front row is my father, Curtis Sissel, who was not only part of this orientation class, but also worked on the construction of the Sleeping Beauty Castle and other Disneyland buildings.

What’s equally amazing is the story of who Mell was before he became a photographer. Mells original desire was to become a musician so he and wife moved to Southern California when he landed a job at the Dianna Ballroom. He played the coronet there till late 1947. Then he moved onto becoming a projectionist due to periodontal disease that ended his musical career.

While Mell continued to work at theaters threading reels of film, he picked up another type of film and began shooting photographs of accidents for the Insurance Companies. In that same year, Mell started contributing his photographic work at the Santa Register. By November of 1948, at the age of forty six, Mell began his new career as a news photographer at the Register. With no known experience of being a journalist, the ex-musician became one of the best well known cameramen in Orange County and the first Chief Photographer of the Register. He would go on to documenting everything from car accidents to crime scenes. From highway 101 taking form to one of Orange County’s defining monuments … Disneyland.

Back in 1954 when Disneyland project was announced, the Santa Ana Registers had a circulation of about 30,000 to 40,000. Average pay was $1.25 per hour, making it where you had to turn in at least 80 hours per week to make a living. So it was part of the norm for photographers to freelance and then sell their images to outside sources.

Not only were pay scales unbelievably different 50 years ago, so was photography. Mell’s basic photo outfit consisted of 2 cameras, electronic flash, light meter, Tripod, and a gadget bag. Mell had no PhotoShop and digital darkroom. He developed his prints by hand; standing over a row of printing trays, the hot water causing steam to rise up and swirl around him. Wearing a blue technician’s jacket, much like the ones you see doctors wearing today, Mell would make a print by putting it in the main developer and hurry it along by rubbing hot water and then some straight developer on the photo paper. When he was in the dark room he was all business - he was the boss. At least till noon, then it was off to the Santa Ana Elks Club where he would tend bar.

Mell’s work is well known even today, and can still be seen in the Disneyland Park. While his images are some of the most visible in the Park, not being one of Walt’s employees meant little, if any, official Disney recognition. Still, it is a great reminder of how one person can make such a hugh impact on so many lives, even at the age of forty six. It was in Mell’s darkroom that the first images of Disneyland were developed, and the dream of a man started to be captured on film.

In 1962 a heart attack claimed his life and his prized darkroom would be sealed till the 1990’s. Leaving the photos and negatives of Disneyland to sit on the shelves collecting dust, locked away, and forgotten…

With Mell’s photographs being re-discover and back in the publics eye once again, his photographic vision can be seen. It was in Mell’s darkroom that the first images of Disneyland were developed; one man’s vision and another man’s dream, literally rising up out of the steam, captured on film.

by Carlene Thie

Horrific images from the 40s, 50s & 60s

Anaheim Car Crashes

Mell Kilpatrick

Fifty Years After His Death

1st Chief Photographer for the Orange County Register

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