THE STORY OF HOW NATACHA Merritt discovered a fondness for photographing herself masturbating in the shower and taking portraits of herself engaged in oral sex and group shots of her friends as they lounge around hotel rooms sucking on each other's toes is just a simple girl-meets‑boy story. Natacha met Jerry in San Francisco when she was seventeen; he was twenty-eight. They didn't hit if off at first, but when Jerry showed Natacha his "penis file," a collection of phallic self‑portraits he'd taken over the years, she knew he was the one. Not long after, they decided to move to Paris -she'd study law at the Sorbonne and live with her mother; he'd get an apartment nearby ‑ but before they left, they went on a road trip. One day, in a hotel room in Atlanta, while they were wrapping themselves in latex and role‑playing, Natacha got bored, picked up Jerry's Casio digital camera, peered into the viewfinder and discovered that she really, really liked what she saw.
"We were experimenting with these new things, right?" Natacha says. "All these really cool sexual things. But the fetish stuff didn't really do anything for me, so I picked up the camera and I got this amazing blow‑job picture. I think it was the first one that I ever took. I was, like, holding his penis like a corn on the cob. It's a really awesome picture. That was the first time I thought that kind of photo was so beautiful."
Two years and one half‑hearted stint at the Sorbonne later, Natacha Merritt, 22, has managed to achieve what many more skilled, established photographers wait years to do: publish her own book. Digital Diaries (Taschen), a collection of visual diary entries, many of which were once posted on the Web, is in better bookstores for $29.99. It's an expensively produced book of technically cheap, highly explicit photos taken mostly during hotel‑room encounters and in bathrooms at parties.
Digital Diaries is the kind of book that people turn sideways or upside down or tilt at an angle in an attempt to make heads or tails of the bodies on the page. It's hard to believe that none of the strikingly candid, occasionally acrobatic photos was contrived in one way or another. "I don't choreograph or direct any of it," Natacha insists. "Nobody is ever directed, and nobody's paid. I just set up the lights and wait. It just kind of happens, and if it's worth taking pictures of, I'll photograph it." Provided, of course, they've signed a photo‑release form first.
Though her ascension from the Internet to the art section of Barnes & Noble has been swift and seemingly effortless, Natacha never intended to parlay her hobby into a career. Her eerily intimate depictions of fucking and sucking transcend smut, even "literate smut," but to their creator, it's just life.
"I take pictures the way other people write in their diaries," she says. "I mean, that was my life. I was completely in love. I had this awesome experience. Why leave when I'm creating images and having a good time with this person?" Digital Diaries is the first book of digital photography that Taschen has published. "She did not have any idea about photography or publishing," says her publisher, Benedikt Taschen. "That was the real interesting part: that it was completely autodidactic. She created something really fresh and new."
Fast, cheap and out of control: The dawn of the digital camera came just in time to document the height of Natacha Merritt's sexual awakening. "Her work," says Taschen, "is really something from the new century."
AT A DINER IN THE CHELSEA neighborhood of New York, where Natacha moved last year, we drink rum‑fueled apple ciders and share an open‑face turkey sandwich with extra cranberry sauce and gravy. She's wearing a Weapons of Mass Destruction T‑shirt, which she found in a flea‑market bargain bin, along with heavy boots and one of those long cargo skirts that supplanted oversize raver pants as this year's street sweeper of choice. Natacha will apply lipstick, wiggle into a bodice or tie her hair in pigtails for her camera, but today her lips are chapped, her face is untouched by make up and her hair ‑ a half‑assed, half‑braided style that's popular on the aggro‑metal scene ‑ is unfocused and unraveling. But at least it gives her tough, fidgety fingers something to do.
Natacha is pulling on her braids and sipping her cider when she turns to a page of the copy of Digital Diaries that's on the table between us. She points to a photo of her with her boyfriend's penis in her mouth, her brown eyes turned up to her own camera lens. "It's out of love that I got this," she says. "You can tell I love him when you look at it. And you can tell I love the girls, too. I was involved with almost all of them. You know what I mean? You can't stage it."
Natacha comes by her libido naturally. Her mother is a French beauty who, according to Natacha, is "a supergenius who is more sexually obsessed than I am." Her father is a California cowboy who didn't take to the confines of fatherhood; the two split up when Natacha was six weeks old.
Natacha got her first modeling job when she was just a toddler, appearing in print ads for Woolite that she describes as "totally tacky." She was raised in San Francisco with the help of her stepfather and her mother's best friend, Dominic, a gay au pair with whom she would do things like shop for cock rings in the Castro neighborhood. She went to a French school in San Francisco and wanted to be a competitive gymnast until a pubescent growth spurt ended her chances.
I ask Natacha when she first realized that she was more sexually expressive than her peers, and she corrects my question with a question. "You mean, when did I realize that other people were so backward?" she asks. "Ever since I can remember, we'd go to nude beaches. One day ‑ I must have been in, like, the fourth grade ‑ I brought a friend to the beach, and her mom flipped out. I couldn't see that friend anymore. That's when I realized that I was different sexually and always would be."
Today, Natacha's life follows a kinetic logic that would be any well‑meaning suitor's tortured undoing. Her days, which usually begin after noon, are spent shooting video for Heavy.com, a still‑developing broadband Web site that offers animation and is pioneering a new form of digital documentary making which is where Natacha comes in. Heavy.com's uncensored, gonzo approach to content suits Natacha perfectly. The Heavy.com crew is a tight‑knit group of animators, filmmakers and wanna‑be visionaries who work around the clock and then spend their weekends together shooting video, ingesting recreational drugs and talking about work.
One of those co‑workers is T.J. Rozsa, who also happens to be one of Natacha's lovers and, therefore, models. He is a soft-spoken twenty‑eight‑year‑old who says he likes to let himself get into trouble. He describes being photographed by Natacha as "very, very, very peaceful. She's always whispering in your ear and asking if everything's cool, always touching. All of a sudden, you're like, 'Wow. I had some blinders on.' She brought me to another level."
But for all her nurturing, Natacha is also pretty good with a rope. "I thought the pictures were going to look all nasty and hard‑core," T.J. says, "but they weren't. It just looked like me in a different situation. It doesn't come off like I'd seen in magazines. It's not like that. It looks like people sharing." To encourage the sharing process, Natacha tries to keep the camera invisible to her subjects. Often it will be mounted on a tripod, and Natacha will compose her shots on an auxiliary monitor before snapping the picture with a hand‑held remote control.
Despite the photographic evidence, Natacha is neither a slut nor a sexual sportsman; in fact, she says she prefers monogamy. But after leaving San Francisco last July, she was much more aggressive. "When I first moved to New York, I was balls‑out," she states bluntly. "I'd be like, 'It's been really fun, but you have to leave. It's over. I came, I got my good shots, go home.' I turn into what guys must turn into when they have a one‑night stand."
Natacha says she finds that taking pictures of herself is empowering. "The camera gave me a sense of purpose," she says. "It enables me to enjoy aspects of life that I wouldn't normally. I don't think I would pick up the bartender unless I was going to photograph it. I'm still like a girl like that. Sometimes, the camera turns me into that person, but otherwise I'm just a normal girl. Really."
Just ask her mother. "I think she went through a fantasy," Nicole Merritt says. "Somehow, her life was not enough for her, and she wanted to see what's out there. One day she said, 'Mommy, the camera is just like when I was writing. Not everything that comes out of an author's mind is real. So behind my camera I can do anything I want.'"
But all the power‑tripping can get addictive, and it becomes clear that erotic photography has its share of occupational hazards. "When the book was done, it was time to have sex without the camera and enjoy it," Natacha says. "Once I picked up the guy sitting next to me in a plane and took him to the bathroom. You know, I used him a little bit, kinda as if I was a sleazeball dude. But I might do it again when the book comes out. Probably more with girls than guys. Guys are too easy."
And easiness is not what Natacha Merritt looks for in a man, if and when she's looking for one. "Someone who's completely confident," she says, "and totally preoccupied and selfish and self‑centered. That's what a good boyfriend is to me."
For now, Natacha will keep documenting whatever parts of her life seem interesting for Heavy.com ‑which, she insists, will be fully up and running in June. What she does with her private time is anybody's guess, though you can bet that much of it will show up in her next book. "I'm getting much more comfortable with the camera," she says. And she's looking for new adventures: "How many times have you fantasized about something you weren't allowed to do, and then that thing becomes a habit?" she asks. "Like, if you conquer the art of sucking toes, you always move on to the next kinky thing."