The Suicide of David Hamilton and the Debate Over Child Nudity in Portraiture

The Suicide of David Hamilton and the Debate Over Child Nudity in Portraiture

The arts — very much including photography — under the umbrella of expression and free speech can explore the boundaries of what is acceptable. Often these boundaries are harmless and prompt little more than a debate regarding the meta of the relevant discipline. Occasionally, however, the debate is darker in nature as the boundary being pushed is one of moral significance. The photographer and director David Hamilton was somewhat of a permanent resident of such debate and his suspected suicide recently has brought a number of questions to fruition.

Hamilton worked in the creative industry from 1953 when he moved to Paris and worked as a graphic designer for Elle magazine. His talent promptly landed him the position of art director at a number of European publications while he concurrently developed a photographic style he would later become famous for. While perhaps scoffed at today, his style of dreamy, soft focus images became popular in the extreme and resulted in millions in sales, many exhibitions, myriad features, and the position of director on several films. It was Hamilton's penchant for young female, and more relevantly, nude, subjects that eclipsed his photographic style in the eyes and minds of many. His work was bombarded with criticism and Hamilton polarized opinion while treading the fine line of "art or pornography" as he tirelessly pursued his "obsession with purity" he believed to share with "Lolita" writer Vladimir Nabokov whom he drew inspiration from. The regular appearance of naked girls, often in their early to mid teens, ignited allegations that his photography was tantamount to child pornography; Few accusations bear as much devastating social impact as this. Two such accusations that do arguably outweigh child pornography is that of rape and pedophilia, and both of these were alleged of Hamilton in October this year.

Image by Olivier Strecker and used under Creative Commons.

On October 22, 2016, French radio presenter Flavie Flament named Hamilton as the person who raped her during a photoshoot nearly 30 years prior when Flament was just 13 years old, as detailed in her novel "La Consolation," said to be based on true experiences. As is often the case with landmark allegations against a public figure, Flament's words prompted several other models featured in Hamilton's work to step forward with similar claims. Hamilton immediately defended himself by stating:

I have done nothing improper. Clearly the instigator of this media lynching is looking for her 15 minutes of fame, by defaming me in her novel...

- David Hamilton

This defense continued with Hamilton asserting that he will begin legal proceedings against the accusers, but on November 25, 2016, he was found dead. His death's cause, while unclear, is suspected to be suicide. Flament issued a statement soon after Hamilton's death reached the media and pulled no punches:

I’ve just learned of the death of David Hamilton, the man who raped me when I was 13. The man who raped numerous young girls, some of whom have come forward with courage and emotion these last few weeks. I’m thinking of them, of the injustice that we were trying to fight together. By his cowardice, he has condemned us once more to silence and unable to see him condemned. The horror of this act will never wipe out the horror of our sleepless nights.

- Flavie Flament

The topic is so fiercely contentious that a calm and reasoned debate is tantamount to impossible. Hamilton's photography of naked children is not singular and similar types of portrait have suffered similar types of criticism; examples of which can be seen in the works of Sally Mann and Jock Sturges, to name a few. While it is presently fruitless to discuss the rape allegations without a completed legal case, the re-ignited debate of whether this type of photography ought to be accepted is still worth having and it heavily influences the reception and opinions of Hamilton's guilt or innocence. The majority of media outlets discussing these allegations cite cases in which people have been convicted of possessing child pornography in which Hamilton's images have been present. While this does support the general notion that Hamilton's photography is morally wrong, it doesn't speak to the voracity of Flament's claims and ought not to be conflated. That said, there is a strong sense in which the photographs are above and beyond a boundary worth having.

Boundaries and art are terms that appear to repel each other in many regards with a culture within art wanting to "break" boundaries. When the efforts to do such are urinals in exhibitions the effects are harmless; it is only when the efforts walk the line of illegality that a debate needs to take place. The majority of photographers and artists are against the stifling of expression, but when leniency enables the endangering and exploitation of children, creative freedom must be sacrificed. The enormous gray area that engulfs Hamilton, Mann, and Sturges speaks volumes to the need for constructive discussion. If an amateur photographer were to take similar photographs to these three artists, would the images ever reach print, let alone sell millions of copies? The question is admittedly loaded by the terms "amateur" and "similar" but the point stands insofar as how important the context of the images and the artists appear to be. A narrative has been applied to these collections of nude images of adolescents which categorizes them as important and expressions of purity, but it seems that any justification leaves a foul taste in the mouths of many.

The death of Hamilton is an unfortunate one and the reasons are twofold. Firstly, the world is one talented photographer worse off, regardless of the subjects he often chose to shoot. Secondly, the allegations brought to light by several of his subjects have been silenced legally leaving no decisive outcome and either a photographer's reputation permanently tarnished or horrendous crimes unpunished. Nevertheless, the event can be used as a platform in which to re-address the debate over this particular brand of photography and its place in modern society, or rather, its lack thereof.

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Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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thanks for your insightful opinion

Thumbs up from me :)

From the first post I expected a thoughtful thesis followed by a well thought, thoroughly constructed opinion questioning not only the morality of such photos but also a pervasive, contemporary social construct forged from the ground up that shapes our opinions of what's acceptable, what's art, and what's filth. Perhaps, taking it one step further, I expected an intriguing existential dilemma by which, maybe, our own realities are the ones that have been warped while our perception of innocence has become a casualty of mainstream media's sensationalization and adulteration of the purity of the human form.
Instead I read 'Ew'.
I liked your comment, sir. I laughed much harder than I probably should have.

Haha. Dude, it's a shallow response. But I freaking read that whole article, and that was literally my only reaction. On a better day I'm sure I would be more thoughtful and introspective... But for now, this is what we get :)

There are two totally different arguments, and I think it's dishonest to muddle them together. The first is the art, and the second is the rape.

We had a regionally well-known photographer here in Indianapolis several years ago (Miles Fork) who was sent to prison for drugging and raping a 16-year-old aspiring model. His portfolio was Maxim-style so no one really talked about it in an artistic sense. The conversation during that was rooted mostly in how a 43-year-old man got that much alone-time with the teenager. It didn't help that Fork's daughter came forward and claimed her father molested her, too. It's interesting that we have two different conversations in similar situations because of the perceived artistic merit in the types of photography.

That put aside, I always thought Hamilton was a talented artist who put great thought and care into his works and never had a problem with the subject matter. With that said rape is heinous in any sense and I take great issue with what he put these girls and their families through.

It isn't dishonest at all to "muddle them together" if the way the rapist got access to their rape victims was via their photography work and reputation as a stand-up photographer.

There are things that supercede art and "being a rebel", the innocence and protection of children will always be one of those things in my mind. I see no place for nudity, children, and artwork mixing. If the accusations by these women are true, it makes an already bad story a truely horrific one.

Very interesting article, though! I'd never heard of this guy or this story. Thanks for taking the time, Robert! 👌

Child pornography, which is what hamilton did, and pedophilia, are NOT. And no amount of talent makes it ok.

Alexander, that has already been decided in the US of A. The Supreme Court did that several years ago.

Alexander, this is a link that may explain how the US defines child pornography - - I hope this helps.

Also the owner ship of the image or the storage of the image can bring down the wrath of the Justice Department. The porn industry has to do a lot of documentation.

Alexander, my experience is from owning an ISP in late 1990's. Any image of any naked child was subject to DoJ review, some would be ok some not, but who wants a money making server confiscated for that review? And who wants the expense of an attorney to keep out of jail over an image stored on a web server or mail server by a third party? The link I sent is an over view of the child image problem not many shades of gray as would happen in court.

Dude, how do you not see a grown man asking a young girl to expose herself as NOT pedophilia or pornogrophy??? One thing that is a key sign is that several of the girls DO NOT look happy, like they don't even want to be doing it. Would you wanna get naked in front of a grown man if you were an adolecent girl?

Maybe his photography is much ess sexualised, IDK. But his films were sexualised. This was more acceptable in europe when they were filmed, but less so now. Of course the idea of exploring emerging sexuality in pre-teens/teens via movies may be a conversation worth having. But I suspect David Hamilton's approach, as artistic as it is would be over the line for most people. It is arguably not entirely alone in this. But it is more common for people to film this subject as part of drama or comedy than in the erotic film genre!

Well Said, Nathan.

This is a hard one - what are the boundaries ? Is this exploitation of young girls or art ? The debate will continue forever

Where were the parents?

Honestly, it was a different time. I know that's a cop out answer, but I think it's at the core of how this happened. Parents nowadays are much less trusting in this regard. Many of his models probably did have parents present... these are just the ones that didn't.

If Hamilton was guilty of these crimes, the missing parents were accesories. The victims should take them to court. I'd like to know what does it take to leave a beautiful 13 year old woman in the nude alone with a man.

Sally Mann and Jock Sturges did attract a lot of criticism. Without having seen much of their work, which is rare nowadays, I believe their approaches, (particularly Sally Mann's',) are different to David Hamilton. Similarly I haven't seen much of David Hamilton's photos, and only the odd movie, but I believe the photos are not erotic, and the movies are? I really don't know about all the photos.

But whatever you think of David, I still find it hard to lump in Sally and Jock in with David. I see Sally's photos as documentary for example.

I don'tknow Jock Sturges work but I do know both Hamilton's and Mann's and conflating the two is an act of stupidity or ignorance or both on the part of the writer.

The children Mann photographed were her own and she photographed them over several years stopping when they became uncomfortable with being photographed.if you see in her work a voyeristic or an intent to sexually arouse others with her photographs you are projecting your own libido on both her and her family.

Hamilton on the other hand made a small fortune and hi reputation by recruiting the. children of strangers, children with whom he had no deeper or continued commitment to once he was done with them.

Hamilton's photography was very clearly a voyeuristic act on his part and a commercial enterprise which was undeniably marketed for their appeal to the sexual appetite of others.

Whether Hamilton's sexual predilictions went beyond a desire to see the bodies of pre-pubescent girls - after he manipulated them into getting naked - into physically assaulting (raping) them is something only he and those women know.

Whatever else he was, David Hamilton was an artist, in the sense that he developed techniques to produce images which many people appreciate.

There are women, as well as men, who appreciate his work — e.g. the writer and photographer July Stars (Jaja Hargreaves) has written at length in the magazine I.T.Post about what Hamilton's photos meant to her, ever since she first encountered them as a teenage girl...

"It was a revelation and I saw nothing crude, pornographic or vulgar in his images, only compelling and intensely moving portraits in caressing pools of light. Years have passed and I now have my own collection of his exquisite works and films put together with passion. His genius and purpose has been a source of inspiration for many fashion photographers today but none of them have managed to reach such thrilling qualities... Delicate and elegant beyond belief."

Of course I agree that it's important to protect children from abuse like that alleged by Flavie Flament. But do we need a general ban on photos of nude children and adolescents? To me, that seems nonsensical. We're all born naked, and images of nude people of all ages have been part of culture since ancient times.

It's often argued that photos of nude kids should be banned because pedophiles like them... Well, don't pedophiles like photos of clothed kids too? If so, does that mean photos of clothed children and adolescents should be banned into the bargain?

A simple way to protect a young model from physical abuse by a photographer is to have other people present during the shoot, which also protects the photographer against false charges of abuse.

When I was starting out in photography some 40 years ago David Hamilton, Art Kane, J Fredrick Smith , Robert Farber, Helmut Newton and others were the masters. There was nothing they shot that did not reach the pinnacle of our profession. There was talk back in the 80's about Hamilton's work and the fact that he lived in Europe seem to imply that as long as he did it there it was ok. Yes there was the moral majority that had issues but the artists and up and coming artists of the time did not have any issue with his work. To hear these allegations after so many years has passed I really have to wonder why do these women that alleged to have been raped or abused open up now? why did this person or person not report this back then or 3 yrs later or 5 years later... Something isn't right. I'm not saying the model is wrong, but to accuse someone you must have proof. Now we will never know. I still have David's books as I saw them as beautiful pieces of art the subject wasn't a concern as long as their parents consented.

The solution is fairly easy and obvious (and used in other situations). If you are an adult (especially a male), just make sure you are NEVER alone with a child (unless they are yours or a similar circumstance).