Arnold Odermatt was a Swiss police photographer whose work spanned more than 40 years. Originally trained as a baker, he was a photographer for the Nidwalden cantonal police from 1948 until his retirement in 1990. He is best known for his eerily beautiful black and white photographs of the aftermath of motor vehicle accidents. Odermatt joined the police in 1948 and rose to become a lieutenant, chief of the transport police, and deputy chief inspector of the Nidwalden Police before he retired.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Odermatt's photography was discovered by his son, Urs Odermatt
during research for his film Wachtmeister Zumbühl, and this work became a central theme in the film's plot. Urs brought his father's works together in the working groups entitled Meine Welt
, Im Dienst
, and In zivil
and has published Odermatt's work ever since, working in collaboration with the Frankfurt art historian Beate Kemfert
and a gallery in Berlin - Galerie Springer & Winckler.
In 2001, Odermatt's photography was selected by Harald Szeemann
to be exhibited at the 49th Venice Biennale. In 2002 James Rondeau
exhibited Odermatt's work in its own right at the Art Institute of Chicago
, as did Urs Stahel
at the Fotomuseum Winterthur
Odermatt was born in Oberdorf, canton Nidwalden, Switzerland. He joined 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 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 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 darkroom. When the observation post was moved into another building several years later, Switzerland’s first police photographer was given his own laboratory.
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 characterized 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, 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 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-traveled predecessor, Werner Bischof
At an early stage in his police career, when Arnold used the camera to catalog traffic accidents, this was a revolutionary innovation in the Swiss police. If 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.