Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Corpse photos 'shock art'

Police continue investigation of morgue incident

By Jane Prendergast and Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The photographer suspected of sneaking around the Hamilton County morgue to pose pictures of corpses has a history of controversial art, including painting with animal blood and photographing dead birds.

        As Cincinnati vice officers continued Monday to investigate Thomas Condon, more details began to emerge about the morgue pictures and about the man who took them.

        Police learned of Mr. Condon's alleged actions last week when a film processing company employee looked closely enough at the negatives to realize they showed dead people posed with objects. Coroner Dr. Carl Parrott Jr. said the photographer was allowed into the morgue because he was preparing to do a documentary video on a procedure, but that he should not have had unfettered access.

        In some of the photographs, a girl's hand rests

        on an Alice in Wonderland book. In others, an old-fashioned key has been placed between her lips. Other props included a snail shell, a piece of sheet music, a torn piece of paper with the word “will” written on it and a picture of a man showing his muscles on a beach.

        It wasn't the first time Brett Ekre of Robin Imaging Services noticed the work of Mr. Condon, a regular customer. A week or so earlier, he saw pictures of a young boy's body. Those appeared to chronicle an autopsy, he said.

        “The first set was, honestly, even more off the wall, twisted, sick — whatever you want to call it,” he said. “But I honestly didn't think they were real.”

        One of those pictures, he said, showed a boy — after his body was sewn back up — with an apple on his forehead.

        “I guess I just thought, "It's probably just an actress laying there or something,'” Mr. Ekre said.

        Mr. Condon, of Mount Auburn, had not been charged as of Monday.

        The pictures, however, could lead to a variety of charges, according to court documents, including abuse of a corpse, pandering obscenity and illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.

        Mr. Condon did not return several phone calls Monday.

        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune said he wants a full briefing on the incident and will ask to meet with the coroner and county administrator at the Wednesday commission meeting.

        “What transpired ... was highly inappropriate and I think we need to get to the bottom of it and take steps to ensure this does not happen again,” he said.

        Friends and acquaintances described Mr. Condon as a talented photographer known for pushing the envelope since his days as an art student at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.

        “Tom's not doing anything new,” said Ryonen Ignatius, 29, who has known Mr. Condon more than a decade. “I think it's insensitive to the family members that he did what he did, but from an art perspective, there is precedent for it.”

        Photographing corpses dates to Victorian times, a custom some families practiced to document a relative's funeral. Now, dead-body pictures are among the “shock art” images available through specialty channels and over the Internet.

        “You don't see a lot of it in galleries — it's too far out,” said Paul Hendrick, an art collector whose museum in Metamora, Ind. includes coffins and other items related to death. “There is a whole thing dealing with the macabre, a whole realm that is way out there.”

        Ms. Ignatius feels certain Mr. Condon's intent was purely artistic. “But he was extremely presumptuous in the way he went about it,” she said.

        Mr. Condon worked for several Cincinnati photographers before operating his own commercial photography business.

        In Mr. Condon's studio in Walnut Hills, police found the muscle man picture, the old key and the snail shell seen in the pictures, according to the search warrant. They also found a coroner's report book, photos and negatives of various other autopsied bodies, negatives of an infant's autopsy, a fake bone and a fake brain.

        Tom O'Neill contributed to this report.


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