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See Me Feel MeReview - See Me Feel Me
by Richard Murrian
Edition Skylight, 2006
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 29th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 35)

Richard Murrian has already established himself in his first book Reanna's Diaries as a follower of David Hamilton's photographs of teenage girls.  The themes are familiar: the innocence of youth, the budding beauty of adolescent girls, the symmetry between the beauty of the female body and the beauty of nature, and the sense of childlike fun of girls as they frolic.  While there has been some controversy about Hamilton's work, his soft focus and determined emphasis on a dreamlike innocence is itself unobjectionable if repetitive and narrow in scope.  Of course, if any depiction of youthful naked girls is in itself wrong, then Hamilton's pictures would have to be written off, but we live in a culture where there's great tolerance for the depiction of pretty young women on most of mass media, and Hamilton's work seems in many ways quite tame compared to the pictures on prime time TV and popular magazines, except that he shows some nudity. 

The question for Murrian is whether he can surpass the work of his idol.  One feature of See Me Feel Me is that is has many pictures -- it has 275 plates, which is many more than any single book by Hamilton.  There's a sense of thoroughness here, with Murrian determined to show many of the pictures he has taken.  Mostly, he sticks to familiar approaches, showing young women in soft focus, holding roses, reclining with tulips draped over them, or lying on a beach as the sun sets.  They stare off into space, stare at the camera, or close their eyes, looking preoccupied, curious, full of yearning, or with hints of pouting insolence.  They wear little jewelry, maybe earrings, a bracelet, a necklace, a belly-button ornament.  Occasionally they wear skimpy dresses or lace underwear. They are beautiful models, looking lithe and relaxed.

There is a one-page preface by Jack Gilbert (who's he?), that says "Richard shares with us here a much wider and vastly deeper perspective of what he finds intriguing and beautiful about women."  It is hard not to conclude that Murrian finds young women attractive because of their perfect skin and perky breasts, but that doesn't seem very deep.  Murrian's own writing makes you cringe.  In his one page text titled "All That is Beautiful, is Sacred," he starts off with the questions "What defines a 'woman'?  What defines a 'girl'?" and goes on to say that he sees "la mystique feminine in image after image."   Each model is named and the section devoted to her is given a title, such as "Desirs illicites," "The Evanescence of Innocence," and "Bonds of Eternal Beauty."  Some of the section titles don't sound so alluring when translated: "Chaton d'Eros" is Kitten of Eros.  It is clear, however, that the book aims to be more than a collection of sexy pictures of young women, and seems to reach towards the metaphysical heights of grasping the essence of the flowering of female sensuality.  Yet we should not just scoff at the aesthetic pretensions of Murrian's work.  Rather, they need to be taken seriously, because they show why this sort of work is problematic.

Several aspects of this work are obvious.  First, the young women are indeed gorgeous.   Second, Murrian has photographed them with care, and his pictures have a high technical quality.  They are carefully posed, framed, and processed.  Third, his work is very derivative of that of David Hamilton, and when it explores different approaches, it tends to follow other well used forms. 

There are a few pictures in the book that have their own distinctive style, and they tend to be the simpler ones.  For example, plate 265, of model Iveta, shows her lying nude on a bed on top of a textured brown covering.  Her arms are extended beyond the bars in the headboard and she is illuminated by a clear light.  Here Murrian does not use a soft focus, and this improves the picture considerably.  The picture is taken at a slightly odd angle, with the model's body at a diagonal from bottom left to top right, and the lines of the headboard and the bed cover convey a grid, which heightens the models slim figure.  Plate 149, of Eliska M removing her pants captures her in motion -- her hair hanging down and her body distorted by the movement captured in the picture.  It's a much fresher and dynamic image than most in the book.  Plate 99, of Kristina looking directly into the camera, but with her hand between her and the lens, so partially covering her face, is a much more gripping picture of her than the one where she is sitting around wearing white stockings.   Unfortunately, these moments of originality are few and far between. 

The beauty of the images, even if they are unoriginal, should not be discounted.  They are certainly qualitatively different from the sorts of photographs to be found on most "nude teen girls" websites, and they also are different from the other images find in more crafted books of photography reviewed on Metapsychology, such as Hegre's 100 Naked Girls, Kuhn's Mona Kuhn, or Stobblehouse's Heavenly Beauties.  The difference is not in technical quality, but rather in the vision underlying the images.  Murrian is expressing a view of innocent girls with youthful sensuality starting to become more mature sexual women.  There's no doubt this is a psychologically important idea, but his approach is to almost obsessively romanticize it.  There is no reference to menstruation here, or the difficulty and embarrassment of puberty.  Although the models are mostly nude, there is little reference to sexuality here either: the models are nearly always pictured on their own, and in one case where there are two together, they are sisters, so the intimacy between them is non-sexual.  Murrian's preoccupation with the idea of innocence has an implication that he does not much stress yet which underlies most of his imagery: the loss of innocence is a real loss, and once these girls have become fully mature women, they take on the corruption of the world.  Fully mature female sexuality is thus something to beware of, and the moments before this corruption need to be captured. 

So what is troubling about Murrian's work is not that he shows young women nude, but rather the implication of what is left unsaid.  Taken to an extreme, this view would imply that mature women are inherently corrupt, and this feeds into the all too familiar virgin/whore dichotomy.  To put it dramatically, Murrian documents the virgins before they become whores.  This may be an uncharitable interpretation of his work -- after all, he does not depict any women as sluts, and he clearly is interested in showing women as beautiful and sacred.  However, the one-dimensionality of his work does not offer any other richer interpretation of female sexuality, and his use of clichéd icons of innocence and sexuality (flowers, drops of red wine on the skin, garters and stockings) reinforce a conservative iconography.  Murrian's work feels nostalgic for an earlier imaginary era when life was simpler and modern culture had not complicated the questions of sexuality and gender.  It represents a fantasy, which is of course exactly what most people who purchase this book may be looking for.  We should be free to fantasize, and Murrian is certainly thorough in his exploration of his vision of femininity.  Within the limited boundaries of his self-imposed task, he is very successful. Yet we also need to recognize that this isn't an innocent fantasy or a guileless exploration of an essence of beauty. 

Our culture is particularly preoccupied with the beauty of youth in contradictory ways.  It both holds up youthfulness as the epitome of beauty, and, especially in the USA, tends to knee jerk condemnations of the depiction of naked adolescents.  Often defenses of the work of photographers such as David Hamilton or Jock Sturges just rest on the double standards and hypocritical Puritanism inherent in those condemnations.  The danger of such simplistic debates is that they miss the complexity of the issues and shift the focus to questions of free speech.  Murrian's work is a crystallization of a certain view of women, and so it serves an aesthetic purpose.  However, it is disappointing because it is so narrow in its vision, and for missing the complexities of the young women's experience. 

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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