Sunday, February 04, 2001

Photographer's interest in death
led him to morgue


While county considers charges,
others defend artistic motivation


By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Condon
        Most of Thomas Condon's photographs will never be seized in a police raid. A portrait of a child looking to the sky. A still-life of food arranged on a table. A profile of a young man leaning against a motorcycle. But along with those, Mr. Condon also has produced pictures that reveal a far more personal and sometimes disturbing vision of the world.

        His friends say that vision is what led him last year to the Hamilton County morgue, where the Mount Auburn man shot more than 50 photos that have since been seized by police.

        The photos of 12 bodies, in various stages of autopsy, now are the focus of a criminal investigation that could lead to charges this week. Authorities have called them “disgusting,” “revolting” and “sick.”

        Those who know him say Mr. Condon, whom friends say is strongly influenced by the work of controversial artist Andres Serrano, sees the pictures another way. To him, they are works of art.

        “I don't think he thought there was anything objectionable about doing this,” said Sonja Henrixson, an artist who has known Mr. Condon for six years. “He was very careful not to do anything crude. He was interested in the beauty of the shot.”

        But what Mr. Condon sees as beauty, police see as a potential crime. Prosecutor Mike Allen has described the photos as a violation of privacy and says criminal charges are possible.

        Coroner Carl Parrott said he was shocked to learn that Mr. Condon had photographed bodies without the consent of the families. The intrusion has led to a review of morgue security and the suspension of a pathologist who may have helped Mr. Condon gain access.

        Ms. Henrixson and other friends say authorities have unfairly portrayed the 29-year-old photographer as ghoulish and immoral. They say the real Mr. Condon is unusual but sensitive, driven but kind.

        He is obsessed, they say, with following his own artistic vision, wherever it might lead him.

        “He sees things very differently,” said Steve McGowan, a friend for several years. “His art is very personal to him. He's very passionate about his work.”

        Much of his work is standard fare for a professional photographer. Portraits of friends. Pictures of food for advertisements. Even the occasional wedding album.

        Over the years, however, he's also nurtured an interest in “the cycle of life,” especially the final stage of that cycle. His portfolio includes photos of dead birds and a deer heart encased in silver.

"He doesn't shriek'

        Ms. Henrixson said Mr. Condon occasionally spoke to her about death and the beauty he saw in it. “Isn't it a shame people feel so horrified about death?” she recalls him saying.

        “When he looks at something dead, he doesn't pull back and shriek,” Ms. Henrixson said. “Life is beautiful and the end of the cycle has beauty, too. He's deeply interested in these issues. He's not in it for a superficial joyride.”

        Mr. Condon's interest in death grew as he followed the career of photographer Andres Serrano, whose controversial work includes a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine. In 1992, Mr. Serrano produced a series of photos entitled “The Morgue: Cause of Death.” (To see these photos, go here and click on Exhibition. When that page opens, click on Room II).

        Mr. Condon declined to comment, but his attorney, H. Louis Sirkin, said Mr. Serrano was a profound influence on the young photographer. When Mr. Serrano came to Cincinnati a few years ago to give a lecture, Mr. Condon was there.

        “I think it was that lecture that got up his curiosity about this,” Mr. Sirkin said.

        Mr. Serrano took his photos after gaining the trust of a pathologist at a morgue in Italy. Prosecutors suspect Mr. Condon did the same thing here. He managed to get into the morgue even though the coroner rejected his proposal to document an autopsy procedure on film.

        His friends say they don't know details about how Mr. Condon got access to the morgue, but they insist he did nothing wrong. “He didn't break in. He didn't sneak around,” Ms. Henrixson said. “It was all very friendly.”

"It's immoral'

        That's not the way the coroner or the families see his visits to the morgue. “Not only is it probably illegal,” said Dr. Parrott, “it's immoral.”

        Mr. Condon's photos from the morgue are slightly blurry, black-and-white images of bodies. Most are close-ups of arms, hands, legs or torsos.

        The most striking photos — and the ones that have stirred the most outrage — are those that show the bodies posed with sea shells, sheet music and other props. One depicts an old-fashioned key placed across the lips of a woman.

        Mr. Allen said the photos are among the most shocking things he's seen in 25 years of law enforcement. Ms. Henrixson said the pictures are part of her friend's artistic vision.

        “He put beautiful pieces around them,” she said. “It's a beautiful way to think.”

"It's all for a purpose'

               Ms. Henrixson said the photos were part of Mr. Condon's exploration of the cycle of life. She said the props are symbols: The sheet music represents “the rhythm of life” and the sea shell represents the “shell of the body.”

        “Thomas is looking to tell stories through his work,” Mr. McGowan said. “His art is very intelligent. It's all for a purpose.”

        The goal, Mr. Sirkin said, was to better understand life and death. He said the morgue photos are part of a series of photos that depict life from beginning to end.

        The series includes photos Mr. Condon took of his sister giving birth two years ago.

        “I've found him to be a very sensitive young man,” Mr. Sirkin said. “He takes his artistic work very seriously.”

        But prosecutors and the families say Mr. Condon's failure to get permission before taking the morgue photos makes any discussion about art irrelevant. They say the photos violated their privacy, as well as the dignity of their loved ones.

"Up-and-coming'

               If Mr. Condon looked past such concerns when taking the morgue photos, it wasn't the first time he put his artistic interests ahead of other responsibilities.

        As a teen-ager at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, he excelled in art classes but did poorly in academics. He left the school after his junior year.

        He studied art books and taught himself most of what he knows about photography, Mr. McGowan said. At an awards banquet last fall, Mr. Condon was introduced as an “up-and-coming star.”

        “This is a guy who seeks beauty in everything he sees,” Mr. McGowan said.

        Mr. Sirkin said the morgue photos are no different. He said the intent was to capture an idea on film, not necessarily to publish or distribute the photos to others.

        Whatever the intent, prosecutors say the photos are improper and possibly illegal.

        Ms. Henrixson considers them “part of a personal artistic investigation.” She said Mr. Condon doesn't understand why so few people see the photos the way he does. She said he was distraught when he spoke to her on the phone last week about the criticism.

        “They don't care,” he told her. “They don't know me. They don't want to know me.”

       



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