May 25: There are two outcomes of travel, arriving, or not arriving.
Arnold Odermatt, born on this date in 1925, was all too familiar with the latter, while Lisa O’Donnell promotes the idea of a safe and satisfying arrival.
Her purpose is to encourage others to enjoy the best parts of remote, unspoilt and mysterious Myanmar (once Burma), its abundant historical sites and friendly peoples of diverse ethnicities, closed off from the world for the past half century mainly as a consequence of the military government’s human rights record. In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government and the doors have opened.
Travel photography is a genre that in too many cases is of interest only to its makers; the vacationers who took them. These, by Lisa O’Donnell, are intended for a broader audience, in a book.
Following a holiday there in March 2013, Australians, Lisa and Marty O’Donnell moved to Myanmar and over four years have made it their home, travelling everywhere in the country foreign travellers are allowed (and, by accident, some places where they were not!).
Lisa O’Donnell launched her exhibition and book today at The Fox Darkroom and Gallery, 8 Elizabeth Street (via laneway), Kensington, Melbourne. The book is a travel guide to Myanmar, quite a tome, that is the result of thousands of kilometres criss-crossing the country even to the remotest corners, and a great deal of teamwork with designers, and map-makers, since many of the places are literally “off the map”.
The market envisaged for the book is not necessarily the back-packer, but the person who has a little more time and means for an exploration of an extraordinary country and it is the result of the couple’s ongoing business providing tours for such people.
Lisa’s imagery presents vignettes of the country, quite often shot with a 300mm telephoto to compress the space. Cropped as panoramas these present as bas-relief panels not unlike the art of the country itself.
From time-to-time, part of challenge in photographing in Myanmar is dealing with the hazy atmosphere that’s brought about by the traditional charcoal cooking methods still widely used. I’ve found it is best not to fight it, but use it as part of the image structure, embracing the soft focus effect it emulates by adding a little more at the image production stage.
Myanmar has a far-reaching network of rivers which for many centuries have been the lifeline of civilisations in this area and today still provide transportation and life’s necessities, with always some activity along the river banks throughout the country. Consequently many of Lisa’s photographs feature water and take advantage of the its abstracting and atmospheric qualities.
Myanmar 1st Hand results from eighteen months and 15,000 km of journeys of discovery by the authors in their car, on trains, tuk-tuks, boats and even the back of trucks. Spurred on by by a desire to remedy the lack of relevant travel information and a desire to share their love of the country, the couple researched, documented, mapped and photographed diverse travel destinations. It’s a resource-rich travel guide built on local knowledge to provide bounteous travel possibilities illustrated with captivating photographic work conveying the spirit of a unique country and its people. It is available in both printed and PDF formats, the latter updated ‘live’ as new information is obtained.
While I visited Lisa’s show at the The Fox Darkroom and Gallery, as an added bonus Tom Goldner, who was the prior exhibitor, of Passage, graciously gave me a considerable amount of his time to show me around the darkroom, classrooms and studios that he has set up in recently restored Young Husband Wool Store in Kensington, originally constructed in the late 1800s. Assisted by enthusiastic volunteers and generous crowd-funding Goldner provides quality facilities to a growing clientele who are newly attracted to, or long devotees of, traditional chemistry-based photography, fibre-based printing, antique or alternative processes and large format cameras.
Lisa was a student whom I taught at La Trobe University around the time of Arnold Odermatt’s unexpected rise to fame. He has lived all his life in the enviably picturesque and remote Swiss canton of Nidwalden in the centre of Switzerland, rising from the shores of Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne) and surrounded on all other boundaries by the Urner Alps.
It is an environment that might have provided all he needed to satisfy his enthusiasm for photography, but he also took his camera to his work as a traffic policeman. From 1948 until his retirement in 1990, he documented car accidents with careful diagrams of trajectories and impacts, but he also added photographs made with his Rolleiflex. Not only that, the fastidious Odermatt took such delight in his skills as a photographer that he made two sets of images; one for police purposes and another for his own interest.
The latter are more carefully composed images, mostly of VW Beetles which had parted company with the road and careened off to implant thesmselves into the scenery. Though Odermatt’s photographs are objective records of the scene of the accident, they also take in the surrounds of roads through mountain passes and skirting beautiful lakes.
In the case of the pair of shots below he provides the facts of the situation by showing the road from which the car departed, as well as including an incidental figure for scale. In the second he has moved close to the car to compact the shot and to give the vehicle and the plant life of the shoreline more pictorial prominence, while ensuring the frame is also filled with the picturesque features of Lake Lucerne. In the darkroom he has dodged back the car, inadvertently giving it a halo.
There is no sign of the human victims of the crashes, only the bent remains of vehicles. Often the skid marks are marked out in chalk for the camera and describe solarised-looking arabesques across the tarmac.
Though we know that many of these incidents resulted in panic, injury, death and tragedy, their signs have been removed and the result is a document.
Some of his later pictures in colour, especially those published in 2006 by Steidl as On Duty, which depict his neatly uniformed colleagues at work, typing reports, setting up speed traps, undertaking advanced motorcycle training, at target practice and dusting for fingerprints, were to promote policing as a career to the young people of Nidwalden in the hope of bolstering the dwindling numbers of officers. What then have they to do with art? Odermatt himself certainly doesn’t see them as artistic. Why have this policeman’s picture been so popular, widely exhibited and the subject of articles and two monographs?
As Susan Sontag so adroitly pointed out in her 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’ “What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic”, and that is certainly part of the attraction of Odermatt’s pictures,
They in course became dated, the accidents long forgotten, and the colour promotional material outmoded, unsuited to their original purpose. But as the millennium approached the pictures acquired a patina as curiosities, quaint reminders of a world in which careers could continue across a lifetime in one corner of one of the most secure and bourgeois of countries.
In 1993 Odermatt’s son, Urs Odermatt, a filmmaker, rifled through his father’s archive and with an eye for these vintage qualities assembled them into the book Meine Welt (Benteli, 1993). It launched Odermatt’s second career, attracting representation by Springer und Winckler Galerie in Berlin.
This was an era in which neglected corners of photography were being uncovered. In that Odermatt also was gathering evidence his imagery relates quite closely to those in Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence (1977) a collection of unexplained scientific, public relations and technical photographs gathered from corporate archives.
The artistic value of both these bodies of work lies in their detachment from that original purpose, a kind of appropriation in tune with the postmodern strategy and accordingly it is more correct to regard Urs, the collator of this collection, and not Arnold the cameraman, as the artist.
However there is no denying that the older Obermatt’s artistic, or at least photojournalistic or narrative touches, such as this rather gentle encounter of two Beetles who have attracted a crowd quite disproportionate to the trivia of the incident.
When seen from the reverse angle an irony is revealed; the two cars met just in front of a billboard promoting road safety and are overseen by a motorcycle officer who grinningly salutes their carelessness; or perhaps he is congratulating himself on distracting the drivers!
Obermatt’s works also share a fascination with the macabre discovered in the media by Andy Warhol and turned into silkscreens, though there are no injured people trapped inside these vehicles and no corpses dangling from the power poles. A very Swiss sense of decorum has ensured their removal before the pictures were taken.