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Mell Kilpatrick and the Invention of the Dashboard Camera

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    Posted 9 years ago

    (203 items)

    By Jim Linderman from Dull Tool Dim Bulb
    The mounted dashboard camera, as we all know from “America’s most horrible ruckus” on the flat screen, is de rigueur today for every cop car. Sideswipes, weaving drunks, runaway crackheads…we see them all through the electronic eye of the police car windshield. But did you know the apparatus was invented by a Weegee like ambulance chaser named Mell Kilpatrick who took accident photos for Los Angeles Newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s?

    Mell Kilpatrick was a self-taught master photographer with Weegee skill and fortitude. In fact, the precious few times his name is mentioned, Weegee’s often follows. Living in Orange County when it was literally a county of oranges, Mell was attracted to photography young and certainly had the right eye. In the only photo I’ve found of him, he is posing as if squinting into a lens finder. Like a Weegee in sunshine, he traveled light…camera, flash, tripod and a trench coat when the road was slick. But he also had a camera mounted on his dashboard pointing through the windshield and I am sure these photos were shot with it. Like a hard-boiled P.O, whenever California blood was spilled, he was there. Crime, Crash, Insurance Fraud…he squinted through them all in black and white. A James Ellroy with a speed graphic camera and a police-band radio. He is probably best known for the iconic photo “It’s lucky when you live in America” which depicts a car overturned in a field after having crashed through a billboard advertising a mountain fresh brand of beer. These photos of Mell’s skid marks, so to speak, are mild compared to the gruesome carnage shown in his work (and which should be shown to every driver using their cellphone)

    In an extraordinary article which draws comparisons with the car crash silkscreens of Andy Warhol and the car crash fetishists of J. G. Ballard, writer Nathan Callahan attributes Kilpatrick’s vision to those he saw while working as a projectionist at the Laguna and Balboa Theaters in the late 1940?s, where he watched film noir masterpieces while waiting to change the reels. He learned well and got used to the dark. All these photos have his identification stamp or notes, but only one provides the time: 5 am.

    Kilpatrick’s negative collection, well organized and labeled, sat for 35 years until being turned up by photography collector and dealer Jennifer Dumas. She compiled them into a coffee table book “Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories” in 2000 published by Taschen, linked below.

    Remarkably, there was another side to Mell. As Orange County turned into Disneyland (literally) Mell turned his camera to the construction. Soon he was loaning his darkroom to other Disney photographers, and Uncle Walt himself granted him full access to the construction site. Mell’s granddaughter has published no less than five books of his early Disneyland photographs. As Callahan reports, she “sold the most gruesome ones…they brought a bad vibe to the house.”

    Forensic Photography would seem to be a growth industry, what with all the teenage texting going on at 75 MPH. It was probably a good gig for Mell…even if most of them seem to have been taken at 5:00 AM.

    Original Accident Scene Photograph by Mell Kilpatrick circa 1952 Collection Jim Linderman Original Article and more photographs by Kilpatrick are on the Dull Tool Dim Bulb Blog


    1. MsDowAntiques MsDowAntiques, 9 years ago
      Another fascinating entry.

      I had to go look up "Weegee" as I was clueless - but now I know who he was, too --

      Here's the book on Amazon -- Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories --

      Being a Southern California native, I might have to get one of those Disney photo books --
    2. MinnieandApril, 5 years ago
      My grandfather Mell Kilpatrick images are also in 5 other Disneyland books I published, Ape Pen Publishing/ Carlene Thie. I decided with all the images of my grandfathers I have to create another book which will capture his horrific images in Anaheim California / Southern California, which will come in 2015 / 2016.

      Mell Kilpatrick's passion for photography started as a hobby. Armed with his "Weegee" style camera, Mell gravitated towards the streets, tracking police calls and documenting everything from car accidents to crime scenes. He became a familiar figure to the various police departments and insurance companies serving Orange County.

      His career as a news photographer began in 1948 and he eventually became the chief photographer for the Santa Ana Register. As one of Orange County’s best-known cameramen, he covered Orange County in every possible manner — by air, on foot, by car, and even by boat. Determined never to miss a photo opportunity, he even attached a small camera to the dashboard of his car pointing out the front windshield!

      He recorded a nascent Orange County where Interstate 5 was a meandering state highway (then called Highway 101) and vast tracts of orange groves were flattened one day and built up the next. It was from these groves that Orange County’s most defining monument rose… Disneyland. And Mell was there to chronicle its growth.

      Mell worked relentlessly to capture on film Walt Disney’s dream. He climbed atop scaffolding, crawled into tunnels, even hung out of a light plane 5,000 feet above Disneyland to snap the perfect shot. Like any momentous project, Disneyland under construction was sometimes chaotic and many of the features, such as a darkroom, were low priority. When Mell found out that Walt needed a local place to develop staff photos, he opened his darkroom to official Disney photographers. The park’s first images were developed in Mell’s Santa Ana darkroom.

      Walt often called Mell to photograph special days during construction, as well as granting him unlimited access to Disneyland. Along with dozens of the nation’s photographers, Mell was invited to Disneyland’s press premiere on July 17, 1955, as well as Disneyland’s golden opening day, July 18, 1955. History buff that he was, Mell saved every piece of memorabilia from that day, including the official Disneyland Press Kit.

      Mell was only sixty years old in 1962 when a heart attack claimed his life. His prized darkroom was locked and left undisturbed for thirty years. Before her death in the 1990s, Mell’s widow gave her granddaughter, Carlene Thie, the full collection of his negatives and photographs. In 2002 Carlene opened Ape Pen Publishing Company and produced the first of five books featuring the spectacular vintage Disneyland photography of her grandfather.

      Thanks for all, Carlene Thie

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