Car Crash Studies 2001-2010 by Raffael Waldner

The skin was broken around the lower edge of the sternum, where the horn boss had been driven upwards by the collapsing engine compartment. A semi-circular bruise marked my chest, a marbled rainbow running from one nipple to the other. During the next week this rainbow moved through a sequence of tone changes like the color spectrum of automobile varnishes. As I looked down at myself I realized that the precise make and model-year of my car could have been reconstructed by an automobile engineer from the patterns of my wounds. – from Crash, J.G. Ballard

I have never been in a car crash. Two friends of mine were once in a nighttime high speed head-on collision – one, the passenger, died immediately; the other, the driver, walked from the car physically unscathed. For years, it wasn’t the details of the actual accident that were described to me that I dwelt upon, but the story told to me by my surviving friend when visited the car at the police lot to collect his personal belongings from the interior.

The car had been hit on the right front passenger side because he had instinctively jerked the wheel to the left at the last moment. The passenger seat, with Mike, had been compressed so that it came to rest near the trunk. By my friend’s account the entire right side of the car was shorn away but the left side, except for the doors jammed into their casings, looked clean. There was something in his description about the post-violence, the lingering event felt in the crash dust seen in the bright afternoon sun, that was more horrifying and memorable than his descriptions of the moment of impact.

Raffael Waldner’s Car Crash Studies 2001-2010 just published by JRP Ringier brought these thoughts back to mind.

For the last decade, Waldner has concentrated on automobiles, photographing “the impact of violence and the way it changes the product.” The results of his nighttime ventures into scrapyards photographing wrecks might be seen as a sort of attempted typology of the unpredictable transformation of an object that took place in matters of split-seconds.

His still-lifes, described with large format precision accentuated by strobes, are loaded with the tension between beauty and the horror of the implicit event that occurred. If it sounds or looks cold, it is. His is often the sensibility of a scientist, or an insurance photographer might take to matter-of-factly complete an accident claim. Their simplicity is belied by the new forms of twisted metal, the spider-web of windscreen glass, the scratched and battery-acid burnt paint varnishes that he focuses upon.

A degree of fetish is apparent, both on the part of the photographer and reflecting on car culture. The autos shown here are mostly high-end sports cars of a variety common with associations to wealth, sexuality and vanity on the part of the driver. They are expensive status symbols rendered valueless in an instant – the sexual prowess of the driver left limp in a cabin full of flaccid airbags and useless gear shifts.

Waldner breaks the book into various section starting with the surface damage to the car’s skin. Abstract and painterly, these feel more like a conscious artistic decision, something that many of the other images seem to resist. He follows with sections on areas of impact that sequentially move us closer and closer to the details. The last sections are interiors and finally a small suite of engine blocks removed completely from the vehicle. The sequence might suggest a sort of autopsy (no pun intended), moving from outer body to inner and diagnosing the damage to individual organs.

If Waldner’s book has one flaw I feel it is in the amount of photographs. It is oddly sits between not being ‘Becher-exhaustive’ enough to feel like a full exploration of a ‘typology’ and having too many of one section over another. This might be due not through lack of the photographer having material but from the editing which was done by Christoph Doswald. This is not a crushing blow to how the entire book functions but rather like a small design flaw that might be perceived after several test drives.

Car Crash Studies 2001-2010 includes closing essays by Christoph Doswald and Maik Schluter.