Thursday, February 15, 2001

Morgue photos

A timely reminder for 'artists'

        I wear my father's watch.

        It's too big for me, really, but I wear it because it belonged to him. Like my father himself, this wristwatch is good and dependable. Not fancy, not a Rolex, but a nice, middle-class Hamilton. The real value is that it belonged to him for so many years. My mother let me have it, because she could see that I needed it.

        My family believes in an afterlife, and we understood that Dad was not really in that casket we chose so carefully. We knew his spirit was somewhere else. Still, we picked out one of his best silk ties and his navy suit, good shoes and new socks for him. Probably I make too much of this, but I think I am not alone.

A family concern
        Carol Willenbrink was outraged when she learned that her nephew's body was among those photographed in the Hamilton County morgue. “He is Adam. He is not art.”'

        But, of course, before this is played out, Adam Richardson will be Exhibit A, B or C. He will be evidence. He will be news. He will be a hundred things his family did not want him to be. Photographer Thomas Condon and pathologist Jonathan Tobias were indicted by a grand jury Monday.

        In January, just after the photographs were discovered, a reader wondered: “Did you ever consider that the person you describe as a "maggot taking pictures of corpses' might have a family who loves and supports him?” It's true I was not thinking of the family of the photographer. I was thinking of the families of the people in the pictures.

        It's not that I am sure these men should be thrown in jail for 13 or 14 years, which is a possibility. But I am sure this is wrong, corrupt, and I think it might help the families if we'd say so officially. It is certainly not about artistic expression.

        It's about respect.

        Attorney H. Louis Sirkin, retained to defend Thomas Condon, toldthe Enquirer's Dan Horn that Andres Serrano had a profound influence on the young photographer. Mr. Serrano, probably most famous for his photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine, also produced a series of morgue photos.

        Mr. Condon himself declines to comment to the Enquirer.

Ghoulish greetings
        James Thompson, charged with a similar crime in Colorado, is talking his head off. He says he took photos of corpses with signs reading: “Time's up” and “Getting fired isn't the end of the world” and “Happy Birthday.”

        He was planning to start a “punk rock greeting card business, mocking the whole death industry.” He says it is art, but he now realizes it was wrong.

        You mean illegal?

        “No,” he said by telephone. “Wrong.”

        During his trial and subsequent year in jail, he said, “I thought a lot about the families. I can't really defend doing that to a family.” Each time he appeared in court, “I had a terrible fear that some family member would be sitting there. That should tell you something."

        Well, yes.

        And, if not, Rachel Burrell has a few words that one might hope would have a “profound influence” on budding artists. She is the founder of Fernside Center for Grieving Children.

        “It's very terrible, very hard,” she says. “We are left with artifacts, mementos, old photographs and memories.”

        The remains of our loved ones become more important to us than we might have imagined. Or that a stranger could understand.

       E-mail Laura at, or call 768-8393.


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