Thursday, January 18, 2001

PULFER: Morgue photos

Creep show not first of its kind

        It's a creep show out there, my fellow Philistines. But if you have been standing in line to see Rembrandt and Picasso at the Cincinnati Art Museum, maybe you missed it.

        When you heard that some maggot was taking pictures of corpses, weren't you shocked? We media people didn't even have to sensationalize. What could be more lurid than somebody sneaking around accessorizing dead people, then photographing them? Who would think of such a thing?

        As it turns out, the person who did it is not only shifty — he's a copycat.

        Andres Serrano did the same thing in 1992. To rave reviews. Even we rubes have probably heard of him, thanks to Sen. Jesse Helms. And thanks to his own artistry, of course.

        “I've never gotten over the idea that I was denounced in Congress by people like Jesse Helms and Alfonse D'Amato, and that my photograph became such an issue,” Mr. Serrano told a reporter in 1990.

Art of the urinal
        Right. Who could have guessed that anybody would make such a big deal out of spending public money to show a crucifix immersed in a container of urine? How provincial is that?

        The notoriety propelled the price tags on his work from an average of $1,800 to $5,000 a year later, which may have softened the blow somewhat. Boy, you have to hand it to those art patrons. I don't like Jesse Helms much either, but I wouldn't pay $5,000 for a picture of pee in a can to prove it.

        A Newsday review explained: “Bathed in a soft golden light, the image of the crucifix recalls all Christian devotional art. At the same time, an inherent sentimentality of the lighting and the fact that the yellow haze, far from being divinely inspired, is an emphatically human waste product, gives the photograph a satirical edge.”

        Hey, that's not sniggering I hear, is it?

        Having so sentimentally tackled religion, Mr. Serrano turned his attention to more corporeal themes. “I had this idea I wanted to photograph dead people.” He said he gained the trust of a pathologist and, bingo, he came up with “The Morgue: Cause of Death.”

        A man who choked on a piece of ham. A baby who died of meningitis. A woman who burned to death. You know, your basic photo ops.

A local sicko
        “Dramatically lit close-ups of body fragments,” said the Los Angeles Times review. “Bigger than life posthumous portraits,” raved the San Francisco Chronicle. “Art with an attitude,” pronounced the Village Voice. The New Yorker praised the photographer's “humanity and grandeur.”

        Well, by gosh, we may not be New York or Los Angeles, but we have our own death photographer. Police are investigating Thomas Condon of Mount Auburn, who is suspected of taking pictures of men, women and children in the Hamilton County morgue.

        Unauthorized photos.

        Coroner Carl L. Parrott, who allowed access as part of a plan to take videos of medical procedures, said he was outraged. Jon Esther of the prosecutor's office says he expects charges to be filed next week. “If the photographs are deemed offensive to community sensibilities, the photographer might receive up to one year in prison per count.”

        So those of us who are culturally backward may not be qualified to say that something is without artistic merit or, God forbid, tasteless. But apparently we still are allowed to say that something is offensive. And illegal.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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