It was getting dark. Natacha Merritt, a 22-year-old photographer, walked into the Beauty Bar on East 14th Street. She was wearing a white tank top, baggy khakis and black Adidas. She had three cups of coffee in her, and she seemed a little jumpy.
“You want tequila shots?” she said. “I usually drink Jim Beam, but it’s kind of early for that.”
At the bar she did a shot of Cuervo. Then we retreated to the leopard-print sofa in the corner and opened her book, Digital Diaries . All of the pictures in the book were taken by Ms. Merritt with digital cameras. All of them document her sex life against a bare backdrop of hotel rooms. There’s also some text: “My photo needs and my sexual needs are one and the same,” she writes.
Together we studied the photo on page 28.
“I love that image,” Ms. Merritt said. “I was into rope-tying. I would get a lot of books on sailing. I was completely in love with this guy, my ex-boyfriend. We were together for three years. I love taking pictures and I love taking sexual pictures, and at the time I was into rope-tying, so I would just tie them up and blindfold them and just play, and he would just lay there peacefully for hours on end, and I would just be able to set my lights and shoot, and completely do what I wanted to do, and that’s how I took those pictures.”
On to page 55.
“That’s one of my favorites right there, the 69,” she said. “I remember when I shot it, I was like, ‘Wow!’ It might look like sleazy sex moments, which it was, but it was in love. They were awesome, sleazy, exciting, but the emotional aspect is what enabled me to shoot like that.”
After the relationship ended, she found it difficult to conjure up that mood again.
“Like, this guy who worked around the corner, I met him, and I was like, ‘Can we go home and take some pictures?’ He came over at 4 A.M., you know, all fucked up, and it was cool, but I wasn’t, like, feeling him, really, and so I was faking it for the images. I mean, I still had a good sexual experience–it wasn’t like I didn’t come or anything.” She flipped to a picture of another guy she picked up who was licking her face. “Look at how bored I look,” she said.
She studied another photo of herself and a man.
“I love that one. I just like the mood of it, the red tones, and it looks like all throbbing and passionate and almost angry.”
“You mean you?”
“Both. I think that’s one of the few images of a male member that most women would get aroused by, just because it looks so perfect. Like, I love that guy. Just so in love with me. That’s not a regular hard-on, that’s special–that’s mine. That’s how I view it.”
Her Own Favorite Subject
Ms. Merritt is her own favorite subject. Here she is, in one Digital Diaries photo, standing naked, leaning back a little, next to a mirror, with a cigarette in one hand, the ash long. The unseen hand is the hand holding the digital camera and her dark eyes are checking the liquid crystal viewer of her camera as she takes the picture.
When Ms. Merritt takes pictures in hotel rooms, either alone or with men and women, she almost always take part in the sexual goings-on, erasing the line between photographer and model, and her camera’s liquid crystal viewer becomes her reality.
Here is another Digital Diaries picture of Ms. Merritt sucking a woman’s toe. She is in the foreground. Her hair is damp. The woman connected to that toe seems a long way in the distance. She is beautiful, with black hair hanging to one side, her large hand covering her breast.
Ms. Merritt’s pictures seem unstaged and raw. Her goal, in Digital Diaries , is not so much to capture the perfect image as it is to capture real emotion–people slipping into various emotional states having to do with sex, from those early, playful moments of arousal (that laughing sapphic kiss on page 114), to the snorting intensity of orgasm (the dude with the scrunched face on page 190), to the morning-after sexual melancholy, with daylight streaming into a dark hotel room between parted curtains (see the picture of Ms. Merritt on page 222).
Eric Kroll, a pornographic photographer with style, brought Ms. Merritt to the attention of Benedikt Taschen, owner of Taschen, a publisher of art, design, photography and erotica books. Mr. Kroll first saw her photos on a Web site.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is really good work,'” Mr. Kroll remembered. “I call her up, and she’s very suspicious, and I say, ‘I’m Eric Kroll,’ and it means nothing. I said, ‘I work with Taschen.’ It means nothing. And I’m impressed by that. And I ask her all these technical questions, like F-stops and shutter speeds. That’s not in her mind at all. She was never schooled in that stuff.”
He invited her to his studio. When she arrived, she had a Macintosh laptop slung over her shoulder. With it, she downloaded a photo of herself giving her boyfriend oral sex–a kind of self-portrait, with penis.
“I said, ‘How do you do this?’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m hand-holding the camera.’ So nothing can be further than the reach of her hand. Months later, I did a shot of a girl giving a blowjob, and it looks stupid, completely ridiculous. There was nothing in it that was artistic.”
Raised in the Castro
Let’s go back to the Beauty Bar. Ms. Merritt was on her second drink, a Cosmopolitan, talking about the gay nanny, Dominick, who lived with her and her mother in San Francisco.
“He raised me, basically. He’d always be running around naked, completely shaved. Like, I would get him cock rings for Christmas or decorate the Christmas packages with condoms. We lived in the Castro, in the heart of the gay neighborhood. I was going to nude beaches. Like, I’d skip out of school, like third grade, and he’d show me off as his daughter. So I had like 20 male figures around, and I could be as sexy as I wanted to be, as flamboyant as I wanted to be, and I could lay on their laps, and he would bathe me in the tub. They were so gay that it didn’t matter. So I got so much love, so much love from all these people who thought I was just perfect!”
Ms. Merritt doesn’t know her father very well; he left before she was born. Her mother, a French university professor who now teaches in the south of France, married a wealthy furniture guy, but he was no match for Dominick.
“Dominick would run around the house naked, and he would always be rubbing his forehead like, ‘Oh, God,'” she said.
Ms. Merritt, who attended the Lycée school in San Francisco, got serious about gymnastics as a teenager, before injuries and sex intervened. (“You can’t have sex and do gymnastics at the same time,” she said.) She lost her virginity in a Haight Street apartment on her 14th birthday. The fellow was a “wannabe drug dealer,” and Ms. Merritt was under the influence of LSD at the time, she said.
During her school days she had a fake ID and went to raves on the weekends, dabbled in light sadomasochism and partied a lot–Ecstasy, LSD and “everything.” She also, at one point, dated a guy in his 20’s. He had an apartment, Ms. Merritt had the keys and …
“I had a bunch of girlfriends. And they had nowhere to hang out, there was no place to go kick it. You’d have to go kick it in, like, the park, or wherever, on the street, when you wanted to have fun. One day, somebody told us you could fry bananas and get high, so we were all on acid, just naked or half-naked, frying bananas, and he comes home with a few friends from art school, and we’re all just kicking it, watching movies, just totally fucked up, serving him bananas … I mean, yeah, we all ended up having sex.”
Being with an older guy had its advantages.
“With most girls, they’re with some asshole who dumps them the next day or it’s his first time, comes in two seconds,” she said. “I had an older guy who was completely considerate of my needs from the beginning and into complete talking about it and, like, comfortable with his sexuality, and never treated me bad ever. I mean, I probably treated him bad. I didn’t have to deal with the fucking bullshit, and my mom knew about our relationship. She knew he would treat me better than any fucking little skater asshole dude.”
She ordered another Cosmopolitan. Next topic: drugs.
“Pot fucks my head,” Ms. Merritt said. “I like hash–it’s a little more synthetic.”
“I’ll do ecstasy when it’s around. I don’t like coke. It bores me. It’s too high-maintenance. I don’t like high-maintenance anybody or anything, much less a drug that requires my attention every half an hour. It’s like, ‘What?’ And I’ve never gotten high off coke … I did China white once and I didn’t know what it was. I knew it was heroin, but I was dating this junkie, well, this ex-junkie, and I had to get it out of the way, you know? All I remember is having the best time throwing up with this person holding my hair.”
At 18, Ms. Merritt went to study law at the Sorbonne in Paris. This had been a longtime aspiration of hers. Right before she moved, a precious diary of hers was stolen. She had always kept a diary (“to be down with my past”) and now she was devastated and couldn’t write. So her boyfriend, a photographer, gave her a digital camera.
In Paris, she lived above Les Deux Magots, did drugs, took classes, met a “sleazeball” from a modeling agency.
“As soon as he started giving me the hype about how famous I could be, I was like, ‘I don’t buy any of it at all, this is way too easy. I want to know your game.'”
She persuaded him to take her on, not as a model but as a scout. That’s when she started trolling the clubs for good-looking girls.
“I started taking pictures of these girls, and that’s when the photography thing hit me. I basically started making money off of photography before I even liked it.”
She was miserable in Paris, though. It took two weeks to get a phone line installed, for one thing. Lawyers, she decided, were “glorified secretaries.” She quit studying law after three months.
“I can’t deal with this,” Ms. Merritt said at Beauty Bar. We got up. Before leaving, she remarked on the bar’s kitschy décor. “Look at the ceiling,” she said. “It’s like very almost . This place is very almost cool . It’s, like, the worst.”
On East 12th Street and Second Avenue she saw two guys from the Heavy.com Web site, for which she shoots videos. She hugged them.
“Oh, you smell like booze !” one of them said. “What have you been doing?”
Soon she and I ended up at a sushi place on Avenue A. On the way in, she mentioned her upcoming book party.
“All the older people are going to be there till midnight, so we’ll do the normal cocktail book-signing– but then , I flew in the deejays and, like, we’re just gonna party, we’ll just go wacko. You can do acid if you want to. I mean, I don’t have access to it, but you can bring it. It’ll be a good place to do it.”
Ms. Merritt continued telling her life story. Moved back to San Francisco in ’98. Lived “in a ghetto” with five or six people. Waitressing. Began taking portfolio pictures of strippers, some of which ended up on a porn-industry casting-call Web site. She had no artistic pretensions about what she was doing.
“I was never an artist, never set out to be that at all,” she said. “At first it was just a job. I didn’t feel I was a photographer.”
In March ’98, Mr. Kroll saw her stuff on-line and called her. Soon she had a $20,000 book deal with Taschen, which also publishes photography books by Helmut Newton, Man Ray and foot fetishist Elmer Batters.
“I had, like, 10 images,” she said. “And what do you say, No? Mostly I had to fall in love a lot. Because cheap sex was just not working. But I had a boyfriend at the time, so it was no problem, but then we broke up.”
She kept going, hitting bed-and-breakfasts with her girlfriends up and down the California coast, Las Vegas, all over, picking up studs here and there and shooting them, too.
“I didn’t have sex without the camera from that point on for a year at all,” she said. “The two were one and the same.”
Ms. Merritt moved to Manhattan last July. First she lived in a $50-a-night “sleazy” hotel, then a place on Avenue D, then found a $1,450-a-month studio in Chelsea. She got to know film producer Cary Woods, director and photographer Larry Clark, director Harmony Korine and his girlfriend, the actress Chloë Sevigny. Soon she got her own Web site up and running (www.digitalgirly.com).
Was sex like breathing to Ms. Merritt?
She drank some sake. “No, I’m a complete prude,” she said. “When I first meet somebody, when I first meet a guy, I’m so shy, unless I’m, like, using them for a photo or whatever.”
The sushi arrived. She dug right in.
When was the sex extremely good?
“Last night,” she said. “My boyfriend, kind of, sort of–we really don’t like to use those terms–came in from L.A., and the other two guys were still there, because it was at the editing studio, and I crawled into bed with him, and they were on the other side of the loft, and it was really sweet, and we, like, snuggled, and he was so hard and so excited, and we were like little kids, giggling under the covers, and I gave him kisses, and he came in like barely any time at all, but it was so cute. And he was just, like, almost apologetic and it was just so real and raw and sweet and we’re just no-holds-barred about our feelings.”
After dinner, she said, “You want to sit in the park? Get a bottle of alcohol?” Waiting for the check, she said she was doing her sexy photo shoots about once a month now. “But as soon as I’m involved, as soon I have a girlfriend, then it’s daily,” she said. “Do you know what I mean? I’ll go through these phases, like really, really like obsessive, like never leave their side, like solo, turn off my phone, my mom thinks I’m missing, you know?” She got up. “There’s nobody in my life right now. If I had, like, one of those girls–I don’t have one. I’d love to find another girl.”
Outside, walking into Tompkins Square Park, she said, “Every now and then, I miss the Ecstasy. And the Pacific Ocean and the sunsets and the beautiful lazy days. Just the peace and love, like, just the beautiful happy locals. You know, 6 A.M. on E., different rave parties and noticing how beautiful the city is and sitting and having picnics. An hour from the city it’s just amazing, like Big Sur–all an hour away!”
She stopped at the dog run.
“Ooh, I’m gonna cry, that’s like my little doggie!” she said in a sweet, little girl voice. “It’s a white German shepherd!” Ms. Merritt used to have a dog like that. “Oh, I get so emotional when I see them, they’re so rare!” Oh, look. The dog was mounting a pit bull. “And they’re all so horny!” she said. “She’s so beautiful, isn’t she?”
She peeked into the Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B but wanted to keep walking. She said she liked thrift stores and “Dumpster diving” and spends money on hotel rooms three or four times a month: “Either I check in alone, take pictures of myself, or I bring a girl there and take pictures of her or go with a guy and bring toys and take pictures and drugs. I’d much rather do that than go out.”
“Could you describe an ideal night?”
“Yeah, yeah! Yeah, yeah! Like, endless supply of any kind of drug, really, or not. Just anything. And, basically, like, no limits or whatever, and you just, various, like, latex or sexy weird lingerie that we pick up in a thrift store or a sex shop, find different random toys. Mostly girls … and, you know, food and, you know, spread everything out on a table, music on, lay around. I love places with hot tubs and funky water-type things. You know, tubs in the middle of a room … and lock ourselves into the room.”
“And do what?”
“You know, have sex until we can’t go anymore and photograph it.”
In the Old Devil Moon restaurant on East 12th Street, we got Key lime pie and red wine. Ms. Merritt said she wasn’t into any more questions.
“It’s kind of peaked out,” she said.
“O.K., let’s stop.”
“O.K., perfect,” she said. “It’s kind of like when you’re having sex and you’re just over it, and, like, the guy can’t come and you’re just, like, you know, you did two hits of E., and it’s not going to happen, let’s just call it quits! I love that.”