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How Long Will the Morgue Photos Haunt Cincinnati?

By Gregory Flannery · September 3rd, 2003 · Burning Questions

Is Thomas Condon destined to become the next Robert Mapplethorpe -- a symbol of art repressed by the state?

If New York filmmaker Paul LaMarre has is way, the answer is yes.

Condon, locked up last year and facing a return to prison, made art photographs using cadavers in the Hamilton County Morgue. Mapplethorpe, now deceased, made photographs of sexually provocative scenes.

When prosecutors filed criminal charges over Mapplethorpe's exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati enhanced its reputation as a place where free expression is still a distant goal.

Condon's conviction on charges of gross abuse of a corpse has reinforced that assessment, according to LaMarre. The director of the acclaimed documentary The NEA Tapes is already at work on a film about Condon's arrest, trial and imprisonment.

"I think it's a story that penetrates the entire United States," LaMarre says. "We see an abuse of power. We see a malaise wherein the little guy just doesn't want to cross the powers that be. We see a dumbing down of America."

LaMarre heard about the Condon case while in town for a screening of The NEA Tapes, which examined right wing efforts to censor the National Endowment for the Arts.

The morgue photo scandal highlights the tension between Cincinnati's aspirations of being a world class city and its failure to resolve social problems dating back decades.

"Cincinnati can be a very small town in a funny way," LaMarre says. "What's interesting about Cincinnati is it encapsulates the bigger picture. You have your Carl Lindner, you have your sports teams, you have your beautiful new Contemporary Arts Center. Then there's the dark side. You have your Over-the-Rhine. You have an aggressive use of police power."

LaMarre and Melissa P. Wolf, who collaborated with him on The NEA Tapes, are working to secure funding for the new film. As the story of Condon's trial spreads -- a report in The New York Times recently examined the controversy -- it will be easier to find backing for the film, LaMarre says.

"I want to bring Thomas' work to New York City and see if we could get a gallery to host his show," he says.

With 14 interviews already complete, LaMarre plans to return to Cincinnati for more research. When he tells people elsewhere in the country about the project, he hears almost startling responses.

"Cincinnati has a national reputation," LaMarre says. "I was at a wedding in Harvard Yard recently, and the minister heard I had been in Cincinnati. He said, 'Oh! You were in the belly of the beast.' The musicians heard where I was. One of them said, 'You were in the heart of darkness.' "

LaMarre hopes to complete the film within a year, a goal he acknowledges is likely impossible to reach. Work on The NEA Tapes began in 1995 and took five years to finish, he says.

Meanwhile, Condon's personal struggle continues. He recently lost all of his artwork to a forced sheriff's auction after a bank sued over nonpayment of a loan. Having spent six months in prison before being freed on an appeals bond, Condon still faces an additional year behind bars. His final hope appears to be the Ohio Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to take the case.

A class action lawsuit by the families of the deceased whom Condon photographed -- allegedly with the consent of officials in the coroner's office -- could continue for a long time.

On the bright side, some of Condon's work is on display at Northern Kentucky University (see Arts Beat).

When the litigation is over, will the nation again see Cincinnati as a place where artists are harassed?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.


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