Featured Photographer ~ Natacha Merritt: Millennial Woman

Natacha Merritt - Millennial Women Designer

Natacha Merritt might be surprised at being designated a millennial woman, but she definitely is. She came of age with the Internet’s bare-all, confessional culture. She boldly went where few women had ever gone—on a journey of self-exploration for the new millennium—and gave us no holds barred images depicting her life through sensual encounters. She’s smart, she’s daring, and goes her own way in the world.

Natacha’s story follows the stories of two other women who broke the photographic ground of self-portraiture in the last millennium: Cindy Sherman and Claude Cahun. Like Natacha, Cindy Sherman was a star of her own photos. In the 80s she photographed herself in many guises: a Hitchcock heroine, a Monroe-like glamour girl, an abuse victim, a clown, a corpse, a mutilated hermaphrodite sex doll, a clown, and occasionally, as herself.

Above: Cindy Sherman as a clown and as a Monroe-like glamour girl

Above: Sherman as a mutilated hermaphrodite sex doll and as herself

Cindy Sherman began to make a name for herself in the 1980s. She achieved almost instant success after the shock value of a centerfold series the commissioning magazine refused to publish—not because the images were too sexually explicit, but because they were too disturbing. They depicted terrified, exposed, and hunted women which some thought perpetuated the idea of females as victims. Predictably, the more controversy her work generated, the higher the prices went. Before long, her photographs were selling for $1 million at auction. All of her early work was done using cameras with film. She recently bought a heavy-duty video camera and took a class in video editing. While her digital manipulations still leave you looking for the real Cindy Sherman, you might be able to find her in the retrospective of her work currently being exhibited at MOMA in New York.

Before Cindy Sherman, there was Claude Cahun—a French photographer born Lucy Schwob. In the early twentieth century, she adopted the pseudonym Cahun. Between 1920 and 1940, she took a series of staged self-portraits in which she questioned pre-existing notions of self and sexuality. Posing in costumes and elaborate makeup, Cahun shows herself as both man and woman; hero and doll; powerful and vulnerable. A retrospective of her work called Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun was organized by the Jeu de Paume in Paris and co-produced with La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona. With support provided by Helen and Sam Zell and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the exhibit is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 12. Walking down the basement photography galleries, like the hero of Midnight in Paris, you will be transported back to Paris in the 1920s. This is the first solo presentation of her work in the United States.

Above: Lucy Schwob photographs herself as Claude Cahun, 1929

Above: Claude Cahun, montage

Above: Cahun self portraits

Now, it is Natacha’s time. In 2000, Merritt, at age 22, published Digital Diaries, a book that redefined the boundaries of artistic photography. Controversial and highly sexual, it was the first digital photography book ever published and presented a digital document of sex acts: oral sex, conventional male-female sex, lesbian sexual encounters, and sex with the use of arousal enhancers.

Above: Natasha on the cover of Digital Diaries

Above: From Digital Diaries

The bulk of Digital Diaries depicts Natacha performing sex acts on herself. She looked into the monitor of her camera and when she saw what she wanted, she shot it. While some may see the images as pornographic, Merritt says she was not out to shock or titillate. She was exploring, looking for something beautiful, interesting, and, yes, arousing. The images were featured in publications worldwide: Rolling Stone, The Observer, Playboy, The Wall Street Journal, and Der Spiegel. Through Amazon and the LA Times, it sold 300,000 copies.

 Above: Natacha Merritt

Following the huge success of Digital Diaries, Natacha’s interests broadened. She became obsessed with science and went back to school to study biology—specifically biodiversity and evolutionary biology. She became fascinated with the mating habits of plants and insects, which she viewed as a natural extension of her interest in sex. Just as she saw beauty in the human body, she discovered the beauty of varied life forms. She learned the role of plant and insect life forms on the ecosystem and their effect on human life.

In her new book, Sexual Selection, New book Sexual Selection, due out in May, Natacha is both scientist and documentarian. She asks questions about the nature of selection as a scientist and answers these questions as an artist through photography and writing. She believes that sexual selection constitutes the sensual side of evolution, and she creates lyrical images by comparing and contrasting the sexual intricacies of plants and insects with human sexuality. The concept goes back to Darwin who explained how animal characteristics influenced survival of the species. Merritt adds female choice and sexual plasticity—or the capacity for being changed in form and shape—into the process of survival. The images in her new book are works of art that offer insight into universal sexuality and broaden the viewer’s sense of beauty and understanding of sexual behavior.

Above: From Sexual Selection Image by Natacha Merritt

Natacha Merritt Photographer

Above: Natacha Merritt on the cover of Sexual Selection

Aspect Sexual Selection Photography

Above: Another aspect of sexual selection

In 2000, while she was working on Digital Diaries, Natacha collaborated with two fellow artists to shoot and edit D-Life, the first Internet reality miniseries which was picked up by Warner Brothers. Three years later, she became one of the co-creators of the Cirque de Soleil show, Zumanity, an exploration of—what else—sensuality and peak human performance. For this jproduction, she created large-scale multi-media projections from erotic images she had captured of the performers. In 2008, while she was studying biology at San Francisco State University, she wrote an Insect Circus, inspired by her observations of the insect world. She licensed the rights to this work to Cirque de Soleil.

Above: A Study in Sensuality by Natacha Merritt

Q. How did you happen to become a photographer? Did you receive any formal training in this field?

A. My boyfriend at the time (I was 20) gave me a hand-me down digital camera. It was 1998, pretty much the first year consumer-level digital cameras hit the market. The resolution was 240 by 480–basically the size of a thumbnail these days–but there was a live view swivel screen which I immediately fell in love with.

Q. What made you decide to focus your early work on human sexuality?

Above: Natacha Merritt

A. My sex life was fantastic. My ex was very fetishist and into exploration. Borderline sex addict. I loved it, loved the exploration as much as him when I was photographing it. So the two fueled each other. At that age, it was that simple, I loved it, so I took pictures of it. It’s taken me years of reflection and study to really understand that impetus other levels: artistic, evolutionary and socio-politically.

Q. Why did you choose yourself as the primary subject of your photographs?

A. I feel very comfortable with myself. It is convenient because I am always available. The logistics of self-portraiture can be daunting at times, but communicating with a model is equally complex. I often do work with models –always friends or acquaintances – but in the end many of the images look like self-portraits. One of the reasons being that everything I ask my models to do is something I would do myself. I definitely project myself into my subjects.

Q. What kind of reaction did you hope to elicit from those who saw your photographs?

A. I don’t think about it.

Q. In 2000, when you published Digital Diaries, you told an interviewer that, while your photographs were art, you were not an artist. Do you still believe that?

A. I always took great pains to avoid being the stereotypical idea of an artist. I thought artists were always theorizing (not doing), in pain emotionally or frying themselves on drugs or heartache to find their muses. I didn’t want to be that. But now I realize that stereotypes are irrelevant to my sense of self, and they are, at best, generalities. In order to come to that realization, and the realization that I am in fact 100% an artist, I went back to school to become a scientist. I received a degree in biology a year ago. My new book of artistic images is coming out nearly a year after I got my degree.

Q. How do you think you and your artistic output have changed since your early work?

A. The most noticeable change is the subject matter. I now look everywhere for images, not just down my pants or in my sex life, although I still do that as well.

Q. Why did you decide to return to higher education and become a biologist?

A. I had a little bit of financial flexibility, and I was trying to figure out how to make the best investment. I decided that giving myself the luxury of being a full time student for a few years would be the best investment. I had no idea what I was going to study. In fact, they barely let me into university because my high school biology grades were too low. I was hooked the first semester when I took a class called “world of plants, and it all clicked. Plants and insects were kinkier than anything I could have imagined. I wanted more. Turns out you can’t just study plants without all of the other science pre-requisites. The training is like pre-medicine. I had to remediate in math for a year. I needed tutoring and had to record my lessons and transcribe them. It was very difficult. It was a very very humbling experience, especially after all the success I had had in my early 20’s. It strengthened and simplified my artistic vision. I don’t think anything could ever be as hard as some of those classes. But I wanted to get to the end, to really understand genetics, evolutionary biology, and speciation. Now I can read primary scientific literature and really understand. My art needed that. And all along I was meeting new models in my classes and pursuing the erotic photography. I didn’t realize until a week after I graduated that there was a new book all done.

Q. Who has influenced your work as a photographer and documenter of the sexuality of humans and plants and insects?

A. There is a scientist by the name of William Eberhard. He wrote extensively on the evolution of genital morphology and different insect mating behavior. He is my favorite by far. Human sexuality, Otto Dix.

Q. What direction do you see your work taking in the future?

A. I definitely am pursuing this idea of merging science with erotica. I have mostly only explored arachnid genitalia, but there are many other species with elaborate and fantastic secondary sexual structures that I want to photograph. And humans, well I just can’t get enough of them as well.

Natacha Merritt wears many hats. She is an artist, a photographer, a filmmaker, a biologist, and a writer. Born in San Francisco in 1977, she had an eclectic education, including studying law at the Sorbonne and biology at San Francisco State University. Her first publication, Digital Diaries (Taschen), was a series of portraits documenting her personal sexual behavior. Later works included an internet reality series, collaboration on a Cirque de Soleil project, and a return to higher education where she focused on plant and insect sexual behavior. This study led to her latest book, Sexual Selection (Bongout), in which she shows how our morphologies are linked to other species through shared and convergent evolution. She was recently featured in The Guardian in an article on the genitalia of spider. Her photographs of a spider’s erection are nothing short of phenomenal. To get the shot, she boiled the penis of a dead spider in a bath of lactic acid, allowed it to cool, and waited for about an hour while the pedipaps (penis) expanded. Then she took about 60 images through a microscope at 50x magnification with a Leica camera attached. On a computer, she merged them all into a composite shot. She added extra lighting to give the shot …”a romantic feel”. While she admits that pictures of spider erections have appeared in scientific journals before, she says biologists would probably not shoot spiders as she did—achieving undoubtedly the first-ever artistic shot of a spider erection.

Above: Natacha today

Natacha is very much a woman of her time. She works exclusively with digital imagery—in fact, she never used a conventional camera or film. She didn’t have to learn the elements of camera photography and loves the new digital cameras which she says eliminate any existing technical problems.

Asked why she does what she does, she will tell you that she takes photographs to understand herself and her universe; and to understand herself in that universe. Amazing lady!


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About the Author

Shirley Baugher has been a resident of Old Town since 1978. She and her husband Norman lived for seven years in the North Park Condominiums. In 1985, they bought the historic row house on Crilly Court and have been there ever since. Shirley earned an M. A. and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and has written extensively in the area of American History.


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