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


The End of the Road

The tortured metal & mangled limbs.

Mell Kilpatrick's car-crash photography takes a dark journey beyond the American highway.

By Brad Zellar

The captions assigned to Mell Kilpatrick's photographs in Car Crashes and Other Sad Stories (Taschen) are terse and terrible, models of emotional shorthand: Girl hit and killed. Man run over by a truck. Placentia Ave--decapitation. They are both ridiculously to-the-point, and pointless. Often enough they offer nothing but orientation--the names of streets, intersections, highways--beneath photographs that are nothing if not disorienting.

Mell Kilpatrick was a Southern California beat photographer in the Forties,Fifties, and Sixties a hard-boiled archetype of the camera ghoul, wired with an almost creepy singleness of purpose. Armed with a police-band radio and a Speed Graphic camera--much like his more famous East Coast contemporary, Weegee--Kilpatrick prowled the night streets and highways of Orange County in search of the sternest of images, calamitous still lifers snatched from scenes of all manner of tragedy. His peculiar specialty--his niche--was car crashes, and out of the booming car culture of postwar America he built the most accidental of careers, becoming in the process a sort of living embodiment of Vaughn, the kink protagonist of J.G. Ballard's novel of auto eroticism, Crash.

Kilpatrick was a late starter: He had worked as a movie projectionist in California and was in his 40s when he started haunting accident scenes, taking photographs initially for insurance companies and the highway patrol. He eventually landed a staff photographer's job at the Santa Ana Register, and he worked in relative anonymity throughout his lifetime, snapping hundreds of photographs in the grim aftermath of murders, suicides, and traffic accidents. After his death in 1962, his negatives lay undiscovered in his darkroom for 35 years before being unearthed by his grand daughter Carlene Thie.

As an accumulated body of work, Mell Kilpatrick's photographs are certainly shocking; these are images, after all, intended to be diffused by the gauzy, heavily grained filter of newsprint, digested one at a time in the cropped context of a news story, or buried in the exhibit files of law-enforcement agencies and insurance companies. Gathered together in a glossy monograph they are initially startling in their banality. Confronted with image after image of incredible wreckage--impossibly tangled and fractured automobiles and dead bodies, the Rorschach patterns of black blood pooled and splattered--one struggles with an appropriately human response. Initial revulsion gives way to dull fascination. Often you don't know what it is exactly you are looking at, so complex is the mutation of metal, so dense the wreckage, so crowded the frame.

You find yourself leaning closer, suddenly startled by a clenched fist protruding from the confusion of twisted steel and upholstery. That dirty object resting in the gravel alongside the railroad tracks is plainly a bare, severed foot, but it does not seem plausible. The blunt caption of another photograph tells you what you again do not want to believe: that indeterminate heap splayed across the front seat and apparently wearing a jacket is in fact a decapitated human being. There are bodies--often barely recognizable as such--pinned beneath automobiles and trains, burst through windshields, curled up on the floorboards or sprawled in ditches.

The images are often desolate of anything but tragic aftermath. You have the weird sense of Kilpatrick, alone along a dark highway with the wreckage and the dead bodies--the damp giggle of insects roaring from the ditches and fields around him--exploring these private tragedies with his camera, somehow granted this most solitary and creepy of dispensations. In other photos you see police officers and ambulance attendants, poking in the clutter or excavating bodies, onlookers huddled around, blank-faced. Their mute, almost placid expressions reflect your own numb, helpless response: anesthetized wonder at its deepest remove.

Like Weegee, Kilpatrick also had an odd knack for capturing scenes where an incidental detail or backdrop lends ironic commentary to the photo's subject. In one photograph a car, its doors sprung wide open, is smashed up against a stop sign at a railroad crossing; a gasoline billboard across the intersection fills the background with the message Next Time Go Farther. In another photo Mell Kilpatrick shoots an upside-down car through the gaping hole in a billboard through which it has crashed; the billboard is emblazoned with a beer bottle and the slogan, It's Lucky When You Live In America. There is an astonishing picture of a hot rod--the name The Wanderer airbrushed across its fat fender--wrapped around a tree in Laguna Canyon.

Finally, what is most disconcerting about these images is their awful silence. Stripped of all color, animation, and sound--absent even the strobing of emergency lights and the squawk of police radios--the pictures leave you with only the terrible freeze-frame chiaroscuro of a nightmare. These are photographs that almost demand a soundtrack--something dark and fragmented. Something, at any rate, so that you do not have to listen to yourself wheezing with astonishment over every agonizing page. Kilpatrick's photographs bring the viewer face to face with the most helpless rubber-necking impulses of human nature. You look--you have to look, you want to see--but your head instinctively throws up emotional barricades and activates sophisticated filters. Although there is certainly a powerful object lesson in every one of these photographs, after dozens of pages of car-crash photos it is impossible not to recognize how utterly prosaic tragedy is, how dreadfully commonplace. And that, finally, is the most terrifying revelation of these photographs.

Break down the etymology of autopsy and you get "to see with one's own eyes." The images in are definitely powerful autopsy photos, postmortems, and though it's likely that Mell Kilpatrick never imagined them as such, we might as well admit that they are art. Because virtually every one of these photographs offers a nagging variant of the dark truth we spend our lives trying to keep at shadow's length, and the dumb little profundities and commonsense rules of the road that are tattooed in every human heart: This is it. Life is fleeting. Love someone. Don't drink and drive. Buckle up. Call it mortality's ultimate mixed message: Hurry up. Slow down.

The End of the Road

With Images taken by Orange County Register Photographer

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More Articles On Mell Kilpatrick / Ape Pen Publishing/ / Carlene Thie

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 Diana 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