Way back at the turn of the century when this collection of erotic photography came out, Natcha Merrit was possibly on to something. Her book comprises several photo shoots, essays and interviews which are intended to convey a raw, emergent sexuality employing the immediacy, and arguably the high-tech squalor, of new digital media. The book first caught my attention in 2006, but it was only this past weekend, when I found it on hyper-reduced clearance in Toronto, that I bought my own copy and gave it a proper peruse. I've chosen to review it here because taking a glance at it three years later, I was overwhelmed with questions concerning what my friends studying Walter Benjamin might call "aura loss".
Merrit, who was 21 at the time of this publication (2000), is conventionally attractive; so are most of her friends and sexual partners featured in the book. What differentiates her work from run of the mill erotica are the photographic techniques employed; largely "arm's length" shots which result in very partial, gritty, up-close depictions of the bodies and sex acts involved. She employs a variety of digital cameras, and the differences and effects are telling; a representative photo jars the viewer with a conventional worm's eye view pose revealing a small strip of Merrit's razor-burned pubic area. The mantra is one of rawness, immediacy, the blurring of the lines between photographer and photographed, and the feel of something young, new, and unapologetic.
Even three years ago, seeing this for the first time on the book store shelves, I couldn't help but see what it wanted me to see. Now, having been awash in constantly updated, rotated and manipulated facebook vanity pictures for more than two years, the book tells me something different. I see Merritt as a relatively high-tech, arty and more explicit version of what millions of other 21-year-olds (and to be sure, some 30 and 40 year olds) are also doing; inserting their glossy pouts or bored, carefully poised expressions into every place and event they photograph. (Seriously facebook people, why do you continue to confuse "sexy" with "bored/miserable"?) What might have been a radical jesture at the time has, perhaps, been recuperated in sanitized form by mass culture. But I would suggest, further, that this recuperation was made all too easy by Merrit herself. What do we learn about the raw, emergent sexuality that she documents? Precisely that beautiful people can stage, record and market their own slightly kinky, slightly experimental erotic experiences. There is little challenge here to how we convey beauty or sexual desire; the impression is often that the only thing to have changed is the technology and the camera angles.
All of this is not to say that Merritt's photos are uninteresting. I'd go so far as to call some of them exquisite. But the aura of raw, renegade youth has to a significant extent bled into a general photographic culture of narcissism.