Natacha Merritt’s debut photo collection, The Digital Diaries (Taschen, 2000), was a notable commercial success, selling over 200,000 copies worldwide. Merritt, following Eric Kroll’s suggestion, had traveled across the country, taking sexually explicit digital photos of herself. This fall, Merritt’s newest collection of digital photographs will be published by Scalo. Only 24, Merritt has already attained a strong foothold in the world of art publishing.
Earlier this summer, the Rail caught up with Merritt at her studio in Williamsburg.
Josh Franklin (Rail): Tell us about your current work and its relationship to the Digital Diaries.
Natacha Merritt: With the Digital Diaries, I was just supposed to shoot 200 – 500 images and put them together into a book. About halfway though it, I realized that the only thing I’m motivated to take pictures about is what I’m living or feeling. And now I guess you could say that I get off on more than just myself. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with getting off on yourself, or that I’m getting better or anything. It’s just that when I was 18, I thought, “Oh my God, I can have sex, I can have lots of it, I want to take lots of pictures of it,” and it was, like, the coolest thing. And I was lucky to be able to do whatever I wanted to, basically: So no, in the crude version, in order to get off, I’ve got to do other things.
Rail: Some of the new pictures don’t look particularly erotic.
Merritt: Well, no, but let’s say you need to be somewhere from 9 – 5, and then after 5, you’re super jazzed to do all the things you couldn’t do during the day. The more discipline you have, the more you want to break it. So for me, after three days shooting a random parade or something, I come home and am all the more aroused when it’s time off, so why not capture that feeling, too?
Rail: Wait, let me play Charlie Rose for a second and rephrase your previous statement as a question: So the straightforward street scenes reflect pent-up sexual energy, waiting to be released when you come home?
Merritt: No, it’s the sexual energy maturing, it’s being given time. I’m not always draining it. I’m not, like, looking at this tree and saying that I really want to fuck it. And I’m not looking at all the people in the crowd and wishing that I would be jacking off. Maybe it’s all an excuse to say that I want to shoot all kinds of different things.
Rail: Since the new work is about more than just sex, does that mean you’ve expanded your horizons?
Merritt: It’s always hard to say what it is about when we’re looking at it. But I am getting off on more things. For example, this picture shows a very pretty flower which everybody can’t help liking a lot. But part of me is this other dirty side and so let’s look at that at the same time. So somebody who knows my work will look at the flower and see the sexual side. But most people have sex.
Rail: But not everybody has the same sexual stimuli, right?
Merritt: Yes, but for me, my own sexual stimuli is a positive, whereas a lot of people think of it as a negative. And people do what they’re good at, so if you could get positive feedback on something—writing, photography, whatever—you’ll probably pursue it. And I started as a really good sex photographer, and have since branched out.
Rail: Is that how you would describe yourself, as a sex photographer?
Merritt: No, I don’t like categories. I am actually a writer, and a director, and I do a lot of my own programming and I like making websites, so just saying photographer is too much of a category. I am a photographer nonetheless.
Rail: What about the categories people tried to apply to the Digital Diaries. Is it art, is it porn, is it fashion photography, etc.?
Merritt: It was none of them; it was me. It was my art.
Rail: But are there distinctions between those categories in your mind? In other words, when you set out to do a photo, did you say this one will be an art photo, this one will be porn, this one fashion, and so on?
Merritt: I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that, in order to figure out how to make money. Because you have to make those distinctions in some ways in order to sell your work, right? I used to get off on calling it smut. But then I realized the implications of that term for other people, and so I never use it. I now just try to say it’s photography, or just pictures. Is photography art? There’s a debate going on about that, and I don’t know, I think so, sometimes. Does fashion have art in it sometimes? Yeah, but I can’t answer those questions. I can tell you my own categories. In this day and age porn is the stuff that is restricted to minors (which is bull, I believe kids should totally be allowed to watch porn), porn is what does show. It’s called porn apparently if it does show the full human body. These categories are bullshit restrictions as far as I’m concerned, silly even. If you think about it at the beginning of the century a kiss was considered “porn” and still is to some people. To me the definition of porn is personal and subjective and should definitely not be imposed on others. It’s whatever pushes your own boundaries, wherever you become prude.
Rail: Do you read art magazines, or fashion magazines, or porn magazines?
Merritt: No, I read the Times every day, and I read the Onion, and on the web, I look at the Guerrilla News Network, as well as a lot of conspiracy sites and some military ones as well. And I read Harper’s every month, when I can sit and focus on it.
Rail: I wouldn’t describe you as the typical Harper’s reader, at least in terms of their ideal audience.
Merritt: So much for categories. As for porn, I don’t read anything regularly. But I do check out the fetish stuff, to see what the latest is in terms of the hardcore, super extreme from Bratislava and wherever. And I love gay porn.
Rail: How do you explain the popularity of the Digital Diaries? Did it just appeal to men?
Merritt: First of all, because people could feel it was unique, that the artist was taking a risk. And stood out. Everybody has sex, and wants to like sex, I would assume. And it’s easier to justify getting off on that book than it is on most other stuff. If we say it was porn, it was the best porn out there. I can say that confidently, without feeling cocky. The fact that it was by a girl, who took full responsibility for what she was doing, also set it apart. I was doing it myself, which I think made it feel okay for a lot of women. I got a lot of e-mails from girls all over the place, saying “thank you, I’ve never seen that part of my pussy.” And I believe that. Women said, “It’s about time, I can get off on this shit, too.” At least that’s what the e-mails said.
Rail: Did any feminists object, and accuse you of reinforcing sexist stereotypes?
Merritt: Some, especially at the beginning, when it was just in Europe and on its way here. I was getting say 15 – 20 percent bad e-mails about it. But then as soon as Rolling Stone and the rest of the mainstream press picked it up, everybody seemed to like it. In Austria, though, I was at the center of a public feminist debate, where people were asking why there weren’t any women with hairy armpits in these photographs. And I just looked up and said, “I haven’t yet fucked all different kinds of people.” But in general with feminists I think that it’s true that me doing what I’m doing thirty or forty years ago would have made it harder for them to fight for what they were fighting for. Because back then, you couldn’t be a strong woman and even a little bit sexual. You had to put away your sexuality in order to be recognized as an individual. That’s because men don’t know how to handle strong and sexual women. They might be aroused, but then try to repress the woman. So I think that some of the criticism I get is from women who are still fighting that fight. Whereas I think that, depending on where you are, you often don’t have to repress that sexuality anymore. In major cities in America and in Europe at least, we’ve reached that point. And in the cities is where changes like these start.
Rail: You’re from the Bay Area, a place that’s obviously quite liberal when it comes to sex. Tell us about your family background.
Merritt: My mom’s French, and she was a high school teacher in the Bay Area. She just moved back to France, where she now teaches project and leadership management to French people. As for dad, he’s kind of three different people. The real on was like a cowboy, but I don’t know him very well; my stepfather is a businessman, but I never got close to him either. Then the one who raised me, my nanny, was a gay guy who moved in with us when I was six. And so he took care of me, taking me to all the nude beaches in the Bay Area and so on. So I guess you could say that I grew up just a bit on the liberal side [laughs].
Rail: And your three father figures would also be enthusiasts for your work: a macho cowboy type; a businessman, who would respect your business savvy; and a gay man, perhaps responsive to the S&M.
Merritt: Theoretically, yeah [laughs]. But I don’t think that the first two know. Whereas my mom knows, but she’s the kind of person who wants me to be happy, and as long as I’m happy, that’s all that matters. She even has a few pictures on her wall. However, if she sees an image of me giving a blow job that’s on my computer, she does say, “Tach, can we look at something else?” She’s very French.
Rail: Tell us more about the permissive sexual climate of the Bay Area and how it shaped your work.
Merritt: Yeah, they’re horny out there. The West kind of opens people up, I guess. I always had three-year relationships, though, figuring the sex gets better and better over time. I also had older boyfriends, which my mom didn’t care about, as long as they treated me right. [Points to photos on the wall.[ See those ones? The first is just a new self-portrait. I’ve been taking pictures of me when I’m not the prettiest, instead when I’m most bent out of shape and uncomfortable. I like it. And that’s a protest sign, “Never again for any one,” which is the kind of stuff I’ve been shooting lately. And that’s me with cum on my face.
Rail: I see. Not exactly your girl next door type of stuff, eh?
Merritt: Yeah, but actually, I’m totally old school when it comes to relationships. I cannot sleep around to save my life. I try to have one-night stands, but it doesn’t work.
Rail: What about the men in the Diaries?
Merritt: There’s actually just three guys, all boyfriends during that span of time.
Rail: So, other than bringing your camera to bed with you, you’re actually pretty conventional when it comes to relationships?
Merritt: Mostly, unless it’s a sort of share situation. And I do get to bring home women.
From here the discussion moved away from sex, toward the nature of Natacha’s university studies in France, her literary interests, and the meaning of Enron.
Rail: Tell us, Natacha, how would you describe yourself politically?
Merritt: I’m a French Socialist, but I’m open to all perspectives.
Josh Franklin is a writer living in Williamsburg.