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How to write about these pictures? First, description. Merritt was born in 1977, and these pictures are from the last few years. They are catalogued into eight sections, most of which are labeled according to which camera she used. The pictures are of Merritt and her sexual partners, male and female, engaged in sexual activities. They are explicit, and are probably illegal in many countries. I certainly would not expect to find this book in the local mall, although one can browse through some of the pictures on the web sites listed at the end of this review. They are full color images, taken with digital cameras. There is some text, about her life and the role of photography in her life. The pictures include nudity, oral, intercourse, bondage, kissing, masturbation, and even a golden shower.
Second, evaluation. These are different from images you would normally find in mainstream pornography. They are less predictable, less clichéd, less silly. They are mysterious in a sense: we don't know who the subjects are, how Merritt met them, or what she did with them apart from what we see in the pictures themselves. They seem real rather than fake, but they are not a calm documentary of sex. There's a variety of styles and approaches. There's no obvious theme apart from sex. Some of the pictures are beautiful, some are shocking, and some are bizarre or ugly. It's a confusing book to open and browse - it is hard to work out what Merritt is trying to do with her photography. That's despite the fact that she says why she does this work:
"Taking images is a way to:
a reason to explore
a safe way to experiment" (p. 52)
There's something important about the idea of using a digital camera to document the details of one's life, and Merritt is part of a rising tide of young women using cameras and cams to record their lives, including their sexual activities. Maybe it is empowering, or maybe it just makes a profit. The motives are largely unarticulated. It is clear though that it is a way for women to gain greater control over their representation in culture, as well as to get attention and to make friends. Maybe it is a form of exhibitionism, but it would be nonsense to say that there is no more to this use of cameras than women showing off. I find the question "is it art?" mostly unhelpful because it takes the focus away from the question of what this sort of work accomplishes.
Of course these images can be used in the same way that mainstream pornography is used, for sexual excitement, release, fantasy, and objectification. Magazines like Hustler, Penthouse, and Playboy, and the thousands of pornographic web sites that now exist and do good business use similar languages and forms of representation as women's fashion magazines, teen magazines, and Hollywood movies. That's where we mostly get our discourse and iconography of sexuality. Many people find those representations of sexuality confining and stupid, and look for alternative approaches. One way to go is the sexual underground, where S&M, domination, fetishism, and perversion are explored and enjoyed. Some art photographers and artists have portrayed this world, with varying success, and Merritt says that Eric Kroll is both a friend and a strong influence on her work. However, much of this work is as clichéd as mainstream porn, and Merritt certainly goes beyond the banalities of fetishism. Her work is more spontaneous and exploratory than most, and that makes it interesting.
Lastly, what has any of this got to do with mental health? The most important connection is also obvious: a healthy sexual life is part of good mental health. But what counts as healthy when it comes to sex? It's work such as Merritt's that helps us to question our presuppositions about what is normal and what is desirable, or maybe more accurately, Merritt starts to articulate buried doubts that we already had. Merritt certainly doesn't have any clear answers or theses for us - she never claims that she has. But it's a start, and it's a good one.
© Christian Perring, 2001
Two art erotica sites
Two interesting Cam sites