La Petite Mort: Santillo's Explicit Study of Masturbating Females
The idea for the pioneering photo book La Petite Mort (translated 'the little death') was born after a debate in 2001 between the photographer Will Santillo (1953) and a colleague from Toronto, who stubbornly tried to convince him to go digital.
Although this was still in the early days of digital photography when it was pretty expensive and of moderate quality, Santillo's curiosity was aroused. He convinced a camera store owner to lend him a camera for the weekend, and started experimenting with it.
Fig.1. Classic Anya, 45, model & writer
Go To Extremes
He quickly decided to go to extremes, testing his stress level and using really low light levels, and asked his wife to pose and improvise in the bedroom. During the shoot she started masturbating and a delighted Santillo kept shooting.
From Pornography to Art
It was only when he looked at the result that he came to the realization that this could be an interesting art project. In the introduction of La Petite Mort, Santillo is quoted, "The abstract approach possible with digital distances it from pornography and moves it towards art." In a later interview he explains this as follows: "For me, the digital is not just the type of camera. All my effects are done in camera, not in post, but what I can do in post as an artist is how i want to manipulate the image."
How Would You Like to Masturbate?
Now that he had a clear idea about the approach and the style, he now had to get models. This turned out to be difficult in practice because, as he explains," you don't walk up to a woman you just met and say, "How would you like to masturbate in front of the camera for me?" It got off to a slow start in the first few years, but through word of mouth, and its growing portfolio, it became easier to convince women. When his first book Flagrante Delicto (Latin for "in blazing offence") came out and the women realized he did actually publish, then there was no problem getting volunteers.
When Santillo realized that there was a great variety of masturbating women, he wanted to get the broadest spectrum, not only in terms of physicality, but also in methods. It should go from age 21 on up, as many ethnicities as possible, pregnant women, handicapped women, just to show that your sexuality is not limited by what happens in your life.
Santillo: "Unlike men, who have a very simple-minded approach, [women] are much more complicated beings, I found it was not just an elaborate fantasy; it was an elaborate preparation to put them in the right state of mind."
Fig.4. Stacy, 44, mental health professional
Unique Vision of Female Sexuality
For La Petite Mort, Santillo collaborated with the American pornographic magazine editor, historian and regular Taschen contributor Dian Hanson (1951). She conducted the interviews with 37 of the women portrayed who talk about their masturbatory fantasies which, when combined with Santillo's sepia-toned (sometimes intentionally out-of-focus) photographs, provide a unique vision of female sexuality.
Fig.5. Andrea, 28
Fig.9. Montana Skye, 41, Law office manager
"One of my favorite things is the outdoors, so I'm like, "God, wouldn't it be so cool if we could get away with this out on the balcony?" (Fig.9 to 11) I really enjoy the risky, exhibitionism part of photography and thought it totally captured the true ecstasy of being a woman and being able to bring yourself to orgasm any place you want to. My upbringing was very strict. I was probably over 30 when I first masturbated. At first I was like, "No, I don't want to do that," But then it was like, "Whoa. This is really fun."
Fig.12. Luna, 37, photographer
"Why Don't You Watch Me?"
"I felt very empowered and very proud of myself after the shoot (Fig.12). I kept hearing the tiny little noise of the camera, but it felt comfortable and almost good to know that somebody was watching me. I thought, "I feel great. I feel like a woman. I feel my age. And I feel proud of my body." It has changed my relationship with my partner. I'm able to say, "Why don't you watch me?"
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Click HERE for our earlier article on the erotic photography of Will Santillo
Sources: shortandsweetnyc.com, La Petite Mort by Dian Hanson and Will Santillo