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.