In Nidwalden Switzerland during the mid-1960’s, young applicants wanting to join the ranks of the local police forces were few and far between. The men on the force were getting older and having trouble keeping up with the work load.
Enter Arnold Odermatt, a policeman and photographer. His solution was to photograph policemen on the job in a way that would lure new recruits with the promise of an exciting career in law enforcement. In short, he became an impromptu ad man for the Nidwalden Canton Police Department.
Steidl has just published a beautiful large volume of this work in a book called On Duty and contains over 160 color photographs.
Armed with Rolliflex cameras and color film, Odermatt “documents” his buddies laying speed traps on highways, looking over files of fingerprints, taking part in water rescue scenarios, and investigating car accidents. I say “documents” because most of the images are staged. The participants literally acted out moments from their daily routine under Odermatt’s direction.
All members of the force are in on the fun and are obviously having a great time playing their individual parts in these small photo plays. Their postures and poses indicate their “ideal” image of what they must actually look like when performing these duties in real life. This creates a sense of stiffness in the photos. It is as if the individual personality of each man has been removed and we are left with a group of law enforcing automatons. This quality adds a great deal of humor to these images.
Even though the acting may be stiff, or Odermatt’s ability to direct people is poor, he is a hell of a natural photographer. These images use the vocabulary of advertising images with their clear and sharp descriptions and enticing color palette, but are often so well made that they are not of the lowest common denominator. Odermatt uses all of the information in the frame to his advantage. These are not just pictures where the subject dominates and the rest of the frame or background description is left without regard. From foreground to background, side to side and top to bottom, these frames are masterfully constructed.
Often we are faced with the absurd. Whether conscious of it or not, Odermatt has a flair for organization and timing that creates an absurdist humor or drama to some of the photos. In one, a man aims a machine gun while wearing full protective vest and head covering while in the background a neon blue water pitcher (the brightest color in the frame) mocks the shape of the head covering and the barrel of the gun. In another photo, two chalk outlines of cars are left alone on the road and look as if they themselves have skidded and crashed into one another.
Ten other images that look like a contemporary art series is of melted tail light coverings after car fires. The brightly colored red and yellow plastic blisters, oozes and drips over the car fenders like melting snowcones.
The further along we get in the book, the images get darker in their imagery. We start to see real car crashes and although there are no bodies or evidence of personal injury, the cars are so demolished that the violence of impact consumes the viewer. As real life can be stranger than fiction, these images too are not without an absurd quality. In one, a car, after hitting a small oil or water tank truck comes to rest on the opposite side of a completely untouched highway guardrail. How, with all of the evidence of such forceful impact would this be possible?
In other images we see house fires glowing in the night and small airplane accidents being attended to. The last images were made apparently as a slideshow for very young children regarding street safety. We are shown boys on out of control bikes and kids playing in the street unaware that cars are bearing down on them.
This book is interesting as it reveals the good intentions and idealism of men playing authority figures. Although they are all grown up, they can’t mask the kid in them still playing cops and robbers.
Book Available Here