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Memphis Flyer The Naked Truth

The bare essentials of two photography books.

By Ashley Fantz

MAY 22, 2000:  Writers love to make love to themselves.

They fawn over the just-so sentence; they revel at the transition that shows off their tense, raw prose. Flying on a lusty buzz, they know full well that a slobbering write-up in The New York Times Book Review means some young literati groupie is going to want to suck their brain. So it comes (pun most definitely intended) as no surprise that sometimes overt narcissism sells books. Give all, share all, spread all.

Beyond confessional are two new photography books that take loving oneself to the extreme. However, one is unusually artful, the other exceptionally stupid. The first is Naked Pictures of My Ex-Girlfriends, a sincere, well-written, black-and-white collection by Mark Helfrich. Not so much cheesecake as tribute, each image captures a woman who shared Helfrich's bed during the so-called free-loving '70s.

Jill looks sweet rather than skanky with a Holiday Inn DO NOT DISTURB sign on her left nipple. Disarmingly unintentional is a photograph of a woman leaning into a refrigerator, her backside to the camera. Even the snapshot of the woman on the toilet, startled and flipping Helfrich the bird, reveals just how candid these images are. A professional film photographer -- whose talent was mostly wasted in the flop Show Girls -- Helfrich's eye is similar to that of 1940s film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who made famous the simplicity of a human figure against a linear, natural landscape.

Presented as a bare-skin memoir, Helfrich provides text next to each image, in turn giving these unconventional beauties in the buff personalities. For that, Naked Pictures is more than naked pictures. But there is a little Hugh Hefner in Helfrich. He boasts in the Foreword, "It was no big deal photographing my girlfriends topless or nude; almost all of them were thrilled to pose for me."

As some might expect, Helfrich isn't dodging lawsuits. He tracked down each subject and asked her permission to publish the two-decades-old photos. The photographer's ex-girlfriends may have been okay with this in the '70s maybe, but these women were taken aback with a phone call from their old, somewhat forgotten, flame. It was, one joked darkly, better news that her bare ass was sold to a publishing house than Helfrich calling to say he has AIDS. That spoonful of reality gives this book its social significance. A plain reflection of physical fulfillment without concern for consequence, Naked Pictures of My Ex-Girlfriends is a study of feeling isolated in a crowd, completely alone in someone else's arms.

The opposite in style, taste, and talent is 21-year-old photographer wannabe Natacha Merritt. Her book proposal to art house publisher Taschen must have read something like, "Okay, like, here's the thing: I take digital pictures of myself masturbating and having sex with a lot of really hot, emaciated model types. I'm so daring and out there. Hope you guys like my pictures a bunch!"

Complete with page-turning crotch shots, Digital Diaries is a step below porn in that it's plugged as something greater than the do-it-to-yourself book version of Butt Slammers 13. Merritt's photographs look like cheap versions of 1980s realist and transgender-focused photographer Nan Goldin. After dropping out of law school, moving to Paris (why, where else would one go to be an artiste?), she discovered the cheating benefits of the digital camera. Saying she just waits for the perfect image to come into the viewfinder, Merritt manipulates an image electronically so that she doesn't need any natural talent at recognizing the decisive moment as most photographers do. The result is color photographs of Merritt in various poses of ecstasy that are contrived, empty, and pointless.

Culturally the lavish praise walloped on Merritt from the widely respected Taschen and its latest photog star Eric Kroll suggests that subtlety in art is no longer satisfying. And subtlety does not imply conservation -- even Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano lent a gentleness to their work. In the same breath as those artists, it's undeniable that the lines between porn and art have blurred for centuries, but never so much as now. Merritt cheapens her work by using the Internet to promote her "manifesto" at www.digital-diaries.com. Next to this nymph making a funny face while braiding her wet hair in the mirror, a quote dumbly reads, "I can't separate [sex and photography]. Lately, they've been happening at the same time. I just can't do one without thinking about the other."

A laugh track should accompany the other links, as surfers are told, "Welcome, voyeurs, to the very private sexual journey of a 21st century girl" whose diary "published in any previous century, would have been burned at the stake -- along with its author." Wishful thinking.

In fact, it was the Net where Kroll discovered Merritt's photography about which he gushes that she is "crossing new boundaries" and sharing "all corners of her body, her fantasies, her lovers her world. She is delicate, beautiful, and naive. She is sexy, tough, and smart." (Calling Pamela Anderson: Ms. Anderson, there's someone trying to take over your turf! Get this kid a guest appearance on V.I.P. If she's this inventive with a camera at arm's length, let's see what she can do with a prop gun and barrel lubricant.)

The only redeeming aspect of Digital Diaries is its media-savvy manipulation of the Web to advertise. It's especially helpful when three weeks after its debut, Taschen runs out of review copies. Click on the site to Sneak a Peek of several photographs or read Merritt's short bio describing her discovery of "the thrill of taking sexy pictures." The photographer's "Manifesto" is by far the most entertaining as she claims to "thrive on contradiction and defy all stereotyping."

Think of being 21 again. Then recall an idea you thought was genius, but now realize was a product of your youthful ignorance. Imagine having followed through on your idea, encouraged by a hefty monetary allowance and the promise of notoriety. Kind of make you queasy?

Don't pick up this book without a handful of Tums.

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