Longform

Esprit de Corpse

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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."

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Dewey Webb