Esprit de Corpse

He subscribes to the National Enquirer, lives for tabloid TV and trawls the Internet for wire-service reports of horrific crime.

And last fall, Ryan McNamara's sensation-fueled jag finally spiraled toward its inevitable conclusion. Reeling from the lurid imagery that bombarded him daily, the 19-year-old Arizona State University student could no longer ignore his impulses.

In late September, the art major packed up his camera equipment--and went on a shooting spree.

The photographer's "victims"?
JonBenet Ramsey, Princess Diana, Nicole Brown Simpson and Mother Teresa--all portrayed by McNamara himself, who posed as the celebrity corpses in lurid re-creations of those late greats' respective death scenes.

Titled "Auto-Sacrifice," McNamara's postmortem pinups are currently on view at ASU's Harry Wood Gallery as part of a juried undergraduate art exhibition that runs through Friday, January 23. Each of the four five-by-six-and-a-half-inch color photos is displayed in baroque gold frames bearing engraved tags noting the subject's name and dates of birth and death.

Clad in bra, pantyhose and a quart of fake blood, McNamara sprawls across the entryway to an East Valley home that substitutes for Brown's Brentwood townhouse. Once again covered with blood, he feigns lifelessness in the back seat of a car doubling as Di's deathmobile. In robes and a faceful of flour paste, he's Mother Teresa, passing into Heaven. And with a tiny tiara perched atop his curly blond wig, the five-foot, 10-inch, 135-pound photographer provides an almost comical take on the murder of "America's Little Princess."

I'm sick of art that is not relevant, art that goes on about aloof emotions known only to the artist. This semester I want to move away from [that] and into something that has more relevance to people outside the art world. I want to make pictures that are interesting to the common man.

--Ryan McNamara, in a letter
to the judges of the ASU exhibition

Sitting in the Normal Avenue bungalow he shares with two other students, McNamara takes a stab at fathoming America's obsession with celebrity, death and crime.

"As intelligent and moral as we try to be, we're still fascinated with death, especially of the rich and famous," says the 1996 Brophy grad, who shot the photos as a photography-class assignment in self-portraiture. "Of course, people have always been fascinated by celebrities. But not to the extent that we are today. Now we want to see them after they're dead, too."

The celebrity-death mockups are a follow-up to an earlier series of black-and-white images in which McNamara photographed his female roommate posing as a corpse in a variety of locations. Explaining that he's now "one-upping the paparazzi," McNamara claims he's created photos that either don't exist, or haven't yet been seen by the public.

Okay, so The Globe did print crime-scene photos of the Simpson/Goldman murders a few years ago.

"I never saw them, though," claims McNamara, who's still kicking himself for not picking up a copy before the issue either sold out or was yanked from the stands by high-minded supermarket chains. "I can't believe I never got that issue."

One issue that McNamara not only got, but saved, was the September 23 issue of the Enquirer. A celebrity-death trifecta, the tabloid's entire cover is devoted to the demises of JonBenet ("$ MILLION LIE-DETECTOR CHALLENGE TO RAMSEYS"), Mother Teresa ("HER LAST MOMENT") and Princess Di ("SPECIAL REPORT: THE DAY THE WORLD CRIED").

"This cover was just too perfect," says McNamara. He credits that particular issue of the Enquirer--along with public furor over the paparazzi's role in Princess Di's death--as a major inspiration for his celebrity-death series.

Although the young photographer considered posing as the bullet-ridden bodies of Gianni Versace or Ennis Cosby, he ultimately decided against it. "There's just something a lot more dramatic about something awful happening to a woman," says McNamara. "Frank Gifford may get caught in a motel room, but Kathie Lee's the one we're really interested in."

McNamara laughs. "Besides, can you see me as Ennis Cosby?"
Not that he had much better luck impersonating JonBenet Ramsey. Were it not for the tiara, his photo of the little beauty queen might easily be mistaken for Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. And as Nicole Brown Simpson, McNamara's a reasonable facsimile of the late Andy Warhol transvestite Candy Darling.

"I knew I'd never pass as a 6-year-old girl, but I thought I probably could pass as a woman," say McNamara of his inaugural foray into cross-dressing. "I didn't realize that my jawline looked so masculine until I put on a wig and makeup. I looked in the mirror and said, 'Now what?' I didn't look anything like a woman."

As a result of both artistic license and practical considerations, other details of his photos fall something short of documentary accuracy, too.

Unable to round up a smashed Mercedes-Benz sedan for the Princess Di shoot, he had to settle for his dad's BMW. Deeming the late royal's actual death ensemble uncharacteristically casual, McNamara opted for more "Di-like" formal evening attire.

And although he went to considerable pains to duplicate JonBenet's death scene as described in the press--a task that involved making a paintbrush garrote and sewing a superstar pullover like the one the child was wearing when her body was found--McNamara couldn't resist topping off the ensemble with a ridiculous-looking tiara.

Still, McNamara insists he isn't dissing the dead. "To me, JonBenet is now almost a fictional character, someone who's bigger than life," he explains. "A year ago, who even knew who she was? This is a person who's famous for being dead."

McNamara isn't the first artist to receive inspiration from beyond the little beauty queen's grave.

In March, a University of Colorado student erected a short-lived mural juxtaposing JonBenet's image with the words "Daddy's little hooker." In May, a Denver artist admitted stealing pages of information about the dead child from a morgue log, purportedly for use in a future art project. And last summer, Ramsey family attorneys quashed another Denver artist's attempt to market a book of JonBenet paper dolls.

Unlike reaction to those artists' work, no one has yet risen to McNamara's bait. To date, the only thing approaching a negative reaction has been a fellow classmate who explained she wouldn't be bringing her daughter to the gallery opening because the photos were inappropriate for children.

"Obviously, nobody goes into this without expecting to raise a few eyebrows," reports McNamara. "I'm sort of disappointed. Everyone's been very supportive. I thought at least someone would get upset."

As it turns out, McNamara couldn't have asked for a more receptive audience for his death photos than the photography instructor who made the initial assignment. Unbeknownst to him at the time, professor Tamarra Kaida is intrigued with tabloid culture herself. For an art show held several years ago, she covered a wedding dress with heat transfers lifted from tabloid covers documenting Princess Diana's marital woes. A prescient piece, the dress installation was backed by a bedsheet emblazoned with the words "Until Death Do Us Part."

"Ryan's hitting a nerve, a national nerve," says Kaida, commenting on McNamara's sensationalistic images. "We're all kind of deconstructing in our own way. You're looking at all this [tabloid fervor] and saying, 'Do you believe how crazy we all are?' Yet if you're sort of smart, you get a kick out of it even as you're putting it down."

Kaida acknowledges that McNamara's work is heavily influenced by Cindy Sherman, the photographer who made a name for herself with a series of self-portraits in which she portrayed various societal and movie stereotypes. Still, she believes he's inadvertently tapped into the same pop sensibility that produced Andy Warhol's disaster and assassination silk screens of the early 1960s.

"He's just 19 and I don't think fully understands what he's doing himself," says Kaida. "But he comes in with this idea, and you realize, 'Oh, my God, this is the next Cindy Sherman.' I think he did this simply out of his own interest, exactly the way Cindy Sherman did. 'I think I want to dress up and take these pictures because it's kind of fun.' And what he's doing is really oddly awfully just right."

Told of McNamara's disappointment over failure to create any public outrage with his photos, Kaida laughs. "C'mon, this is art school," she says. "Either they don't get it or they don't care. Now, if he were to hang these in the mall or the Catholic Collective Society . . ."

With the last two remaining "hugely famous women celebrities" still alive and kicking, Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor are currently out of McNamara's pictures. Undaunted, the young photographer has temporarily shifted his focus from the death-styles of the rich and famous to those of the poor and notorious.

His next project? A series of photos documenting the death of Christina Corrigan, the 680-pound 13-year-old who suffered a fatal heart attack in her filthy El Cerrito, California, home last year. The girl's mother was charged with child abuse after authorities discovered Corrigan--whose morbid obesity made her immobile--had been living on a plastic dropcloth covered with urine and feces.

"I'm trying to imagine what that house must have looked like," says McNamara. "When they found her, the body was surrounded by food wrappers, and cockroaches were eating away at her feet." Noting that Corrigan and JonBenet Ramsey died within a month of each other, McNamara says, "You can't help wondering why JonBenet has been famous for a year and counting; this girl is all but forgotten--even though she was a victim of far worse child abuse, as far as I'm concerned."

While McNamara tries to figure out how he'll disguise himself as the elephantine teen's cadaver, he idly scrolls through a lengthy computer file of grisly true-crime stories gleaned from the Internet.

* 12-year-old boy beats and kicks his female teacher to death in China after she told his parents he was misbehaving

* Florida 14-year-old boy shoots sister because she was hogging the phone
* Carpenter uses chisel to slaughter four on bus in Philippines
And, seemingly everywhere, teen mothers are abandoning stillborn babies at proms, in fast-food Dumpsters and even in their own bedroom closets.

McNamara shrugs. "There have been so many 'dead baby' stories lately, even I can't keep them straight," he explains. "They're all sort of running together in my mind, just like this recent rash of high school shootings.

"What I might do is coalesce all these hideous stories into one piece," he says with a grin. "Maybe something like: 'Teen mom kills fetus at high school for spending too much time on phone.'

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Dewey Webb