On Duty

On Duty: Odermatt, Metinides and Weegee

The first time I saw the color photograph "Untitled (primer plano de mujer rubia arollada e impactada contra un poste, Ciudad de Mexico)" (1979) [at left] by Enrique Metinides, it was in a press communication. At that time, I was reminded of the Alfred Hitchcock film Frenzy. This reaction, I suspect, was a coping method -- a way for me to imagine that it was not real by thinking it was a film still. You see, the photograph is of a woman who lies bleeding, dead or dying, crammed between two metal posts, a victim of a car crash. Next to her, a medic offers a jacket -- a gesture that elicits no response whatsoever in the victim.

Today, seeing this work in person at the exhibition On Duty, armed with the knowledge that it is an actual event, I am chilled. I can see her face so clearly, as if I am standing right there in front of her. We are exposed to so much faux violence and death in films, and television on a daily basis, yet the harshest realities of real life, even if they are from thirty-plus years ago, can still affect us deeply.

As stated in the catalog, the three photographers represented in the exhibition on loan from the Andrew and Christine Hall Collection -- Arnold OdermattMetinides, and Weegee (Arthur Fellig) -- are individuals who never really thought much about creating fine art. They were there, making these incredible photographs, to document an accident, crime, or other human tragedy. To do this, one would have to have a good stomach, nerves of steel, the ability to move at the drop of a hat, and possess the capacity to remove oneself from the reality. And yet, through all of the devastation depicted here, there emerges iconic imagery that rivals many great masterworks. The exhibition's curator, Helen Klisser During, in amassing and presenting this work the way she did, has aided us in seeing the art behind the anxiety.

The Metinides photograph "Untitled" is as powerful and intensely visceral as any Jeff Wall work.  In another photograph by Metinides, "Untitled (tintorero electrocutado tras querer instalar un "diablito" descendido por bomberos)" (1959), there hangs a man, apparently electrocuted, arching backwards over power wires atop a telephone pole. The drama, the humanity, the clarity of this event is timeless, while the composition is modern, and the reality unforgivable.

The work of Arnold Odermatt is poignant too, but in another respect. Here, you mostly see car accidents after the victims have been cleared, the assessments complete and the crowds dispersed. However, the cars, which are the subjects in this case, look personified as if sad, broken, and stuck in an endless tangle of physical contradictions and faulty judgments. But that's what makes it so human, the fallibility, the faults -- and that's what keeps you looking.

Then there are Weegee's prints -- scratchy, seedy, more sepia-toned and vintage than the other two bodies of work. Here we see New York City heroics and horrors where crime, calamity, and comicalness converge.  One stellar gelatin silver print, "Dead Lieutenant" (ca. 1937), stunned and stopped me in my tracks. Like Eugene Delacroix managed to say to us in the "Raft of the Medusa" in 1816, Weegee captures, in a single moment of time, a stand of men who have both their physical and mental strength pushed past preconceived limits, and where dread, death, and determination devour the stage. - D. Dominick Lombardi


Mr. Lombardi is an artist with representation at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York, a writer with Public Art and Ecology (Shanghai), Sculpture, and d'ART, and an independent curator.