The Connoisseur: David Hamilton

A few months ago, a friend reminded me that April 15th was David Hamilton’s 80th birthday. Although Hamilton’s work covers an older age range than that usually addressed by Pigtails in Paint, I still felt it important to show his work at some point simply because he was an important influence on many artists and played an important role in my own discovery of the mysteries of the young girl. Therefore, it seemed important to have some thoughtful coverage of this artist before the end of the year, and due to circumstances outside my control, I am just managing to get this in under the wire. Also, even though Hamilton mainly covered girls budding into womanhood, he nonetheless captured a few fine examples of girls at the younger end of the age spectrum.

David Hamilton - from I Grande Fotografi Argento (1984)

David Hamilton – from I Grande Fotografi Argento (1984)

The importance of Hamilton’s work personally and to many others, to be sure, is that since his books are widely available, they have probably been our introduction to the young girl nude. Despite this, I must confess that as I learned of the work of other artists, I did not consider Hamilton’s work the acme of the craft, maybe because of his preferred age range or maybe his incessant dreamy eroticism which is perhaps too narrow a focus. Nonetheless, in preparing for this post–and as has happened with many other artists–I gained a new respect and appreciation for the artist. I was told the best expression of his thoughts and life appeared in the book 25 Years of an Artist. After reading this in detail, I felt I got to know this gentle spirit a little and now believe that his words and thoughts may perhaps be even more beautiful than his images.

The original French text was organized and written by Philippe Gautier and adapted for English by Lilian James. This was the first time Hamilton agreed to sit down and write down his thoughts about his life and artistry. Gautier’s introduction frames the significance of Hamilton’s unconcealed obsession. When Dreams of Young Girls, the first album of his photographs, was published in 1970, in Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States, it is important to realize that they are not only the dreams of an artist but that shared by a freer, more aware, less violent society and one promising sexual liberty.

David Hamilton - from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (1)

David Hamilton – from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (1)

David Hamilton - from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (2)

David Hamilton – from Dreams of a Young Girl (1971) (2)

Gautier and James believe that what is erotic in Hamilton’s photographs is the juxtaposition of two traditionally contradictory concepts: sexuality and purity. This contradiction developed under the influence of Christendom and by 1969 Hamilton’s pictures were for many a breath of fresh air, not only complementing women’s new-found sexual freedom but offering acceptance of their nudity as a perfectly viable state. Now these awakenings of yesterday are threatened by intolerance and a jaundiced eye.

“Life has given me one very important gift: the ability to appreciate perfect simplicity, whether of nature or of the human form.”

Hamilton’s earliest memories were of the declaration of the Second World War. Churchill’s plan to evacuate London children to the safety of the countryside proved a blessing. Suddenly, the boy found himself transplanted from the dreary city to a new life in the countryside and a childhood spent climbing trees with birds-nesting, fishing and swimming. So in 1939, Hamilton began his true life in Dorset at the home of Lady Talbot who lived in a greystone Georgian mansion in the village of Fifehead Magdalen where he was given a room of his own, lodged in a delightful cottage on the grounds, where the lady’s cook and butler lived. He admits to being spoiled, given good food and exposure to fine clothing by the husband and wife, and even in those early days his ideas about clothes and shoes were very well-defined. Although he enjoyed the country life, he still found school and the requisite visits to church twice every Sunday boring.

After more than five years in Dorset, he returned to London at the end of the war, which was not at all pleasant. His home was in Kennington and his mother lived alone, his father having disappeared shortly after his birth. However, soon after his return a man moved in with them and later married his mother. They had a daughter, Mary, but Hamilton had little contact with his step-father, as he wanted to preserve his new-found independence and the particular outlook on life he was beginning to develop.

The second chapter of his life, from the age of twelve to eighteen, was dominated by a passion for cycling. His enthusiasm for the sport knew no bounds and he managed, by borrowing money, to buy Apo Lazarides’ bicycle, the same one which was ridden in the Tour de France. It took a year to repay the loan. “The concept of a man and machine, working together as one, brought me to my first appreciation of the beauty of shape and form: bicycle and rider were as pure in line as horseman and mount.” Nothing else seemed to matter, neither school nor girls, who seemed at that time out of reach anyway. One particular bicycle ride through Dulwich Park with friends stuck in his memory:

“It was a warm day and we had stopped to catch our breath when I saw something, fleetingly, which made a lasting impression upon me. Two boys and a girl were on the grass. One of the boys had pinned the girl down, and the other boy had pulled up her dress and was sliding blades of grass and daisies between her knickers and her skin. The three of them were rolling around, giggling and joking. Without understanding why, the eroticism of this incident affected me profoundly. I made no comment to my friends but the scene and the feelings it aroused remained with me.”

During early adolescence, two people came into Hamilton’s life who were to exert important influences upon him. One was his uncle, William Leat, who undoubtedly gave him a taste for the good things in life, wearing the finest suits, handmade shoes and shirts after whom Hamilton eventually adopted as his own style. The other was Terry Round, and the two of them were inseparable and became involved in numerous escapades and slightly nefarious activities. They played cards regularly and as betting had not been legalized then, it was a fairly hazardous enterprise. Gambling became their main source of income. His taste for expensive clothes was well-developed and he would buy everything he could with his ill-gotten gains. The two adolescents had little money but they managed to dress like millionaires.

Hamilton left school at fifteen and became an apprentice in a small firm, and as he was good at making things, he wanted to get some technical training. He began by meticulously learning carpentry and cabinet-making. The firm manufactured huge shop counters made entirely by hand. Some of the carpenters would come to him if there were technical problems or difficulties reading a plan. He would explain things and this ability soon enabled him to move from the work room to the planning room where he drew plans. He asked a friend, who was a photographer, to travel around London and photograph the façades of all the fashion stores for him and collected them in an impressive catalog which came in handy when it came to designing shop fronts himself. At barely the age of 18 he had already begun to earn a respectable living from his expertise.

About this time he had an urge to see Paris and hitch-hiked there with Round. His first discovery was the crowded Place de Clichy, buzzing with life and activity. For the first time he saw restaurants with people sitting outside, eating and watching the world go by. They did see many attractive girls there but they did not dare to approach them, particularly since neither of them could speak French. In London the only opportunity to meet girls was at the dance-hall. The girls had to leave before midnight and so the young men would take them home in the hope of a goodnight kiss. One night at the dance Hamilton had a success. He met a girl who seemed to like him and she let him take her home. Her family was out and he was invited in. As Hamilton was totally inexperienced, she made all the advances. In retrospect, his first sexual encounter was far more disconcerting than it was edifying.

At twenty he left home and moved to an attic flat in Hampstead, where he met his first girlfriend, Marie, at a party. For several months they shared his small flat. Though short, the relationship was important; it was the first time that either of them had made love, and Hamilton made his second trip to Paris with her. Those early trips to Paris convinced him that he should settle there.

Having worked for some time with a firm of architects in London, Hamilton assembled a collection of drawings and showed them to Siegel, a company in Paris. He changed employers from time to time but was always paid the same meager sum for drawing store layouts. One of his jobs was with architects whose business had been started by a Frenchman and a young American, Bill Perry, with whom he became a close friend. Perry was rich, had a Mercedes-Benz, and spoke some French and became Hamilton’s mentor, making life a little easier.

He had begun to paint; Max Ernst’s La Ville Endormie fascinated him. In his cramped room he had painted a very large canvas. After all this strenuous effort, he noticed one section that he particularly liked, cut this out and submitted it to the Biennale, where it was chosen, along with three hundred entries, from three thousand applicants. Hamilton dreamt of being a painter, but after going to several cocktail parties given by the Vicomtesse de Noailles, where young painters were invited, he realized painting would not pay the rent, and so he continued to work in the architects’ offices.

Another vivid memory of Hamilton’s took place when he moved to another small room on the Rue d’Alger. He recounts that from his window he could see, on the other side of the courtyard, the inside of another room where a young woman lived.

“Often, in the mornings or evenings, we would wave and smile to one other. We had never spoken but nevertheless, these few silent gestures had created an intimacy between us. She would undress and wash herself in front of the window with a total lack of concern. One summer morning, very early, I decided to visit her. It seemed that all the girls living in the building knew each other, as the doors of their apartments were open to let in the cool air. With a rose in one hand, and my shoes in the other, I tiptoed across the hall. I came to a door which was ajar, and recognised my neighbour. She was naked on her bed; lying on her back, one leg outstretched and the other bent over. A lovely picture—a painting by Bonnard come to life. I looked at her for a moment, then realised that she was not alone; a man slept next to her, he too was naked. I left the rose for her. In my mind’s eye the image remains; the girl asleep in that beautiful position, the sheets in disarray; it is a favourite pose, which I have used many times in my photographs.”

David Hamilton - Napping, South of France (1988)

David Hamilton – Napping, South of France (1988)

One day Peter Knapp, whom he had met several times at exhibitions, offered him a job at his magazine Elle. Hamilton was responsible for the layout of the magazine and it was there he met Michel Paquet who became a close friend and colleague. Knapp was the art director and would tell them what he wanted in each edition. Hamilton was in charge of the fashion section and would take the elements of the layout and organize them into 12, 15 or 20 pages. This way of working was an innovation and several of the top people from Queen magazine came from London to see them. Because he was English, they offered him the position of art director. In 1960 he accepted the offer and returned to London, taking Paquet with him.

They worked hard at Queen to make it a success, and Hamilton published one of the very first photographs of a David Hockney painting. One day Irving Penn’s agent came by and unpacked a suitcase crammed with photographs. When he saw the strength and the quality of the work, he bought everything. It cost a small fortune but many of Penn’s photographs were published over time, which contributed to the success of Queen. After more than a year with Queen, Hamilton had a disagreement with Jocelyn Stevens, the chief executive, about one of Terence Donovan’s photographs, which he wanted to publish as a two page spread, but Stevens was against the idea. Hamilton tried to stand firm, but the executive would not listen to his ideas, so he and Paquet left immediately and returned to Paris.

An attempt was made to return to Elle but that was not possible, so he was offered a position as art director of Printemps Department Store. Here Hamilton was responsible for all the promotional flyers, the publicity which appeared in magazines and the billboards outside the store. The exceptional quality of the fashion publications at that time was due to the fact that the art directors made the decisions and gave the photographic layout priority over the text. Peter Knapp at Elle, for example, had discovered Gene Laurence, an American photographer with a great deal of talent but no money and bought and published his work. When Hamilton was at Queen he bought photographs from Laurence and owed his early ventures into photography to him. Later things changed: the words took precedence over the photographs and general layout, and the quality and prestige of these magazines deteriorated.

Hamilton became increasingly interested in photography, and it was inevitable that he should begin to indulge in it. He bought a camera, which was not quite as simple to master as he had thought. Eventually, “I took some very simple shots: random objects, street scenes. We often used young Swedish models at Printemps for the fashion pages and I started photographing them… I practised this new hobby and experimented with a flash light but found I could never achieve what I wanted with artificial lighting.”

His studio became a popular meeting place for models, artists and photographers. Often forty or more people would crowd into the forty square meters and line up outside the door if it was too packed.

“It was when I was working for Printemps that I discovered St. Tropez, in its sublime setting with beaches where people sun-bathed in the nude. It was a world that was completely new to me, and nothing, during my youth in England, or the life I had led until then, had prepared me for it.”

He decided to buy a house in nearby Ramatuelle in 1962 and went there regularly with models, to shoot his first fashion photos. It was in this place that he was able to create his special style of photography. “The village, the surrounding countryside, provided perfect settings, full of softness and charm, and it was, for me, a life so beautiful and new, that I wanted to show, through my work, this earthly paradise. I went there at every opportunity.”

David Hamilton - Young girl at the window, Saint-Tropez (1978)

David Hamilton – Young girl at the window, Saint-Tropez (1978)

Hamilton’s work at Printemps interested him less and less. His stubbornness about artistic choices, perhaps taken as arrogance, created sufficient resentment to get him dismissed in 1965. Fortunately by that time he had begun to enjoy photography, and his professional status over the preceding years meant that he had established good contacts with publishers and models. He engaged in photography for his own pleasure but also took on freelance work, including fashion photos.  “I had been fascinated for some years by the beauty of two particular young women, whom I have previously mentioned: Jean Shrimpton and Celia Hammond. Both were tall and slender with long legs end exquisite bone structures – the high cheekbones, high brows, retroussé noses. For me and many others, these two were the epitome of feminine beauty.”  Then two years later Twiggy came on the scene; Hamilton liked her very much and felt she gave hope to all young girls who, like her, had little in the way of a bosom or hips. His preference for tall, slender bones was inspired by these three women, and it was therefore natural for him to choose similar models for his photographs.

David Hamilton - Pia, St. Tropez (1975)

David Hamilton – Pia, St. Tropez (1975)

The light in the South of France is so beautiful that the artist found artificial lighting unnecessary. He prefers pastel colors and soft shades, which is why he never shoots pictures in bright sunlight. This attitude extends to his models as well; he found that blondes are best for such settings because the characteristic in a true blonde, or in a redhead, is the translucency of the skin, the color of the hair and the distribution of body hair. He says he would have found it difficult to photograph naked brunettes, whose hair and pubis would have been in stark contrast to the softer shades. The great classical painters never depicted the pubis in their nudes; it was blotted out or discreetly covered, thus maintaining the sense of mystery. “The paradox of the erotic is that it reveals and hides simultaneously.”

David Hamilton - False innocence, South of France (1986)

David Hamilton – False innocence, South of France (1986)

The German magazine Twen, managed by Willy Fleckhaus, published his first photographs. The ones taken for Printemps were fashion pictures and were rarely signed by the photographer. The photos in Twen and Réalité in France, were published under his own name and more of his work appeared in Photo. Free of all professional obligations, he could work assiduously on his own images and soon had enough material to put together his first album, Rêve de Jeunes Filles (Dream of Young Girls), with accompanying text by Alain Robbe-Grillet. The composition of this first album was inspired by Leonard Cohen’s song Suzanne, the words of which had been translated and used as captions. The first editions sold very quickly; then there came copies which were mass-produced and the quality of the prints was not as good as Hamilton would have liked. Nevertheless, the response was phenomenal, but there were a few detractors. Hamilton’s work was criticized for its erotic expression which was claimed to lack realism. Journalists exclaimed that people don’t really live like that, but the remarkable fact is that Hamilton really does live that way in his sanctuary in Ramatuelle—with the girls. He is convinced that the public liked his work because it was natural and uncontrived, something that cannot be found in a studio portrait. This state of affairs understandably provokes envy because he is able to realize his dreams and make money at the same time.

David Hamilton - Maggy, Ramatuelle (1988)

David Hamilton – Maggy, Ramatuelle (1988)

Hamilton was asked to direct the film Emmanuelle, but as this wasn’t the kind of thing he wanted to do, he declined. There were also many requests for publicity photos, but he has always found it difficult to work to order and has never been pleased with the results. One exception was his work for Nina Ricci perfumes on the L’Air du Temps campaign.

No biography of David Hamilton is complete without dealing with probably his most contentious peculiarity—his partiality for a particular theme: the young girl. In 25 Years of an Artist, he explains why he finds a particular type of girl so immensely attractive and why she has become the main feature of his work:

“There exist among young girls, within a clearly defined age group, some rare beings who are able to exert a powerful erotic attraction upon certain much older men. It is a kind of magic, a fleeting charm which touches such men, of whom I am one, in a secret part of their sensibility. By means of my photographs I make a sincere confession that few men, bewitched as I am by the forbidden desire, will dare to make.”

Hamilton goes on to explain that not all young girls of this age have this rare quality; no common trait of character differentiates them from the rest, but in observing them closely, one has the impression from their attitude and their gaze, that they sense the particular attraction they exert around them, thus rendering them different. They seem aware of it, and sometimes play on it.

“It seems to me that their femininity is revealed sooner than that of their contemporaries. A femininity too mature for their age, an animal instinct that they already know to be right for them, even if they decide to hold out against it for as long as possible. This intuition, which they do not understand, tends to make them discreet, shy, and thus mysterious. These young nymphs who fascinate me, often shun the avid gaze of the public which reflects an awareness of the beauty that they themselves are trying to ignore. However, being able to recognise them, to approach them and to understand them with patience and trust, I have felt their need to express the difficulties they face from having suddenly found a sensuality that took them by surprise. Some of them would give anything to be different; to be ‘normal’, as they sometimes dare to say. It is true, the rare delicacy of their physical appearance sets them apart, and everyone knows how much it costs to be different in this world… these young girls take refuge in dreams which they have wished me to bring into reality.”

David Hamilton - The mirror, Ramatuelle (1986)

David Hamilton – The mirror, Ramatuelle (1986)

Hamilton later discovered that other artists and writers had this same passion; Laclos described the type in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, written in 1782 and the great painter Balthus did not try to hide it in his work. A writer would need an exceptional talent to expound on such a sensitive subject without risking alienation. Hamilton believed Vladimir Nabokov such a talent. The author of the unique novel established the name Lolita as the icon for young girls in possession of that certain fatal charm.

David Hamilton - Homage to Balthus, South of France (1980)

David Hamilton – Homage to Balthus, South of France (1980)

Hamilton describes the first time he experienced this powerful attraction:

“The first time I clearly perceived in myself the attraction to this particular beau idéal, was on the beach at Bournemouth in England in 1966. I had known and photographed many beautiful girls but had never, until then, experienced what can only be described as a revelation. The girl was playing on the beach with her younger sister, and immediately I noted the long line of her legs, the delicate structure of her body, and most especially, her feline face, the cat-like eyes with the heavy upper lids. Looking at her, I could see the great beauty she would one day become. Her name was Mandy and I asked her where her parents were. I introduced myself to her mother and wondered if she would agree to my taking some pictures of her daughter when she was a little older. Surprised and flattered, the mother seemed to like the idea and I promised that I would give her a call in about two years. I couldn’t understand why I had made this appointment so far in advance, but it seemed important to me and two years later I did contact her.”

David Hamilton - Mandy, Ramatuelle (1971)

David Hamilton – Mandy, Ramatuelle (1971)

This first chance encounter was followed by others which changed his life in ways that he could never have imagined. Another important encounter took place in 1969 on a trip to the Canary Islands. There he saw Mona for the first time; she was nineteen years old and the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Mona came to Paris at Christmas that year and thus their long relationship began. Eventually, they went their separate ways but she remains a central figure in his work. Hamilton has taken more pictures of her than of any other girl and she also starred in his first film, Bilitis.

For years, film producers had been suggesting that he direct a film to bring his young girls to life. He had repeatedly refused because he knew that cinema brought together various talents, techniques and personalities; his pictures have always been created spontaneously and privately. The beautiful play of light which lasts but a few moments can be captured by the camera, but with a team, with complex machinery and the need to shoot a scene several times, you can be certain that something will have changed–a cloud will have moved or the sun will have set. However, Henri Colpi, a director and film producer, and Bernard Daillencourt, a director of photography, had the talent and the experience to make Bilitis. The subject and the title come from Pierre Loüys’ Les Chansons de Bilitis, prose poems published in 1894. They filmed in surroundings familiar to Hamilton: the hills of Ramatuelle, the beaches and the castle of St. Ame above the commune of St. Tropez. The arrival of the set designer, Eric Simon, was essential to Bilitis’ success. Extremely talented, he created sets for many films, and he and Hamilton immediately found they had much in common. The film was released in 1976 and was very successful.

David Hamilton - from Bilitis (1976)

David Hamilton – from Bilitis (1976)

Others films followed with varying degrees of success: Laura, les ombres de l’été (1979), Tendres Cousines (1980) and Premier Désir (1983). Even the effects of the bad experiences making these films were not all negative; they made the artist take stock of his work and goals. His first love was painting; he felt he did not have the necessary technical ability or patience to devote himself to it, so instead he redoubled his efforts to make his photography emulate art. His ballet dancers were by Degas, his still-lifes by Cézanne. This is a practice that has been debated for decades, since the advent of photography itself.

Among his contemporaries Hamilton admired Robert Mapplethorpe, even though his style was radically different. He is surprised that there are so few young photographers today who have followed in the footsteps of the pictorialists. He would have been among the first to encourage and support them, assuming they made the effort to learn something of the history of photography and its great principles. Hamilton works with a fully open lens aperture to obtain a characteristic flatness, without perspective, similar to the frescoes at the beginning of the Renaissance. “I believe that it is a mistake to think that photography can offer an accurate representation of reality. There is always interpretation, even in photographs taken for the purpose of reporting.” Hamilton has little interest in the technical aspects of photography, a fact which sometimes disappoints many students. In many respects he has remained an amateur. He feels that because today’s photography is associated with so many technicalities and tricks, its spontaneity, freshness and beauty have been lost. He may be pleased to know that the ease of using digital technology may be reversing that trend.

Thus, to find his influences, it is necessary to look among the painters. Not being formally trained, he takes a very personal view guided by what concerns him as a photographer. “Those paintings which move me most are those which exploit the fact of the painting itself, as conceived in a single dimension, on a flat plane, such as Giotto’s frescoes where perspective has purposefully been ignored.” Such simplicity is also recognized in the work of Uccello. Cranach the Elder painted some nudes in which Hamilton can discern the criteria for sensuality that he looks for today; the errors of proportion here and there create a feeling of innocence. After the Renaissance, his taste in painting jumps forward to Gauguin and Matisse. “It is impossible not to like the red, or the green, their density and texture.” He admires the great draftsmen too: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphaël. Drawing is, perhaps, the most abstract of art media, perhaps the least illusionistic. And so, with his photography, he has made a humble attempt to move closer to this purity.

David Hamilton - The three graces, homage to Raphael, Ramatuelle (1988)

David Hamilton – The three graces, homage to Raphaël, Ramatuelle (1988)

“I move naturally towards an existence which is becoming ever more simple and harmonious. It seems to me that an accomplishment, no matter what it might be, is not an attempt to build, to amass, as one might imagine, but to depict, to clear away an imaginary landscape. A photograph is capable of changing attitudes. There is more beauty in the perception than there is in the subject. It is a question of the attention that one brings to the things around one: a face, a hand, a cloud, a tree. Should you, while in a taxi, pass a tree which, at that precise hour of the day, in that particular light, seems beautiful to you, you must stop the car. Immediately. You must take the picture immediately. Do not tell yourself ‘l’ll come back tomorrow, at the same time…’ No. Everything will be different. The light will no longer be there, or a crane will have been hoisted on a neighbouring construction site, or simply your perception will have changed, and what you had momentarily seen will have gone. If you are on a beach and you notice a face, or a body, that stands out from the crowd, the sight of which makes your heart leap in your breast, then stop. If your feeling is honest and sincere, it will help you find the right words. Who knows what could then come from such a meeting?”

It is disconcerting after hearing Hamilton’s beautiful words and seeing his images that his work has become the basis for convictions on possession of indecent images in the UK. In one successful appeal in 2011, the judge publicly criticized the Crown Protection Service (CPS) for their unfair pursuit of individual purchasers of these books rather than seriously investigating the publisher or retailer. Of course this advice is a two-edged sword and may make the printing and publishing of this material much more difficult.

David Hamilton - from Holiday Snapshots (1999)

David Hamilton – from Holiday Snapshots (1999)

* I am aware that these scans cannot possibly do justice to David Hamilton’s work, so anyone with better scans that show more fidelity and subtlety of tone are welcome to contribute. Also, I have taken the liberty of transcribing James’ English adaptation that I have used to produce this post for those who would like to read the complete story themselves.

David Hamilton (Wikipedia entry)

2 thoughts on “The Connoisseur: David Hamilton

    • I can take only part of the credit as most of the information came from ’25 Years of a Artist’ which offers great background and insight into the artist. -Ron

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