I think it’s quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished and that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, and that, from now on there’ll simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. ~ My Dinner with Andre
David Hamilton (15 April 1933 – 25 November 2016) was a British commercial and fine art photographer. He is best known for romantic soft focus photographs of young girls. Today would have been his 85th birthday. Hamilton’s work reflected the spirit of the 1960’s counter-culture. The dissenting youth of the 1960’s were a mass movement which had its grass-roots in early 19th century Romanticism. The youth rejected the impoverished values of the advancing technocracy: personal peace and affluence. The utopian group understood the total threat of the machine which is now eating up the biological core of humanity. Hamilton has said that his work looks for “the candor of a Lost Paradise”. But his vision of the Garden of Eden is threatened today by political intolerance and a jaundiced eye. I was fortunate to discovered Hamilton’s work when I was fourteen, the same age as many of his models. His tranquil images have been a great influence on me as a painter. If it was not for Hamilton’s enchanting vision, I may have been swept away by the postmodern tide of self annihilation.
I’ll begin with an image that is not common for Hamilton’s work. Could The Lost Sheep be a satire of the aesthetics of formalism? The photograph reminds me of the abstract modernist work of painters like Mark Rothko. When you look at the picture from a distance you can’t see the sheep, just blurry areas of light and dark. This is the sort of thing that is encouraged by the current art establishment. The photograph bares a resemblance to zombie formalism. The formalism reflects an absurd ascetic materialism which has lost contact with emotional and physical life. The lost sheep will invest thousands and in some cases millions of dollars for what?
I first encountered Hamilton’s work many years ago in the film review magazine Preview. There was advertisements for photography books at the back of the publication. Images from Hamilton’s book were presented with the images of other photographers. I despised the commodification of women reflected in the images of the other photographers. The sentiment of Hamilton’s work was different. I recall, there was an image of group of girls skinny dipping by a misty lake. The image reflected an innocence which is apart from the competitive economic concerns. It is an error to read his work as an expression of the “sexual revolution” which allowed women to be equal partners in the societally sanctioned roles of materialistic conquest.
My appreciation of Hamilton’s work at a young age is parallel to CS Lewis’ interest in Romanticism. A Pilgrims Regress was an allegory of Lewis’ journey to Christian faith. John, the main character in allegory, has a vision of the home of the Landlord, an ethereal island inhabited by “small-breasted Oreads, wise like gods, unconscious of themselves like beasts.” This brings a painful longing to John, filled with a desire to find the island, he sets out on a quest. Since the story is an allegory, the narrative is to be understood symbolically. The ethereal island is apparently a symbol of heaven and paradise, the home of the God. Much of the great art of Europe was drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, the Oreads were the nymphs of the mountains. Rather than see the nude figures as just an object of lust, very often the figures reflected a desire for the prelapsarian state. In Transposition and Other Addresses, Lewis wrote: “We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else which can hardly be put into words, to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves.”
Frank Schaeffer makes the point in his insightful Sham Pearls for Real Swine that traditional artists working with classical nude themes are caught in a miserable dilemma. Both the Christian fundamentalists and skeptical postmodernists are indifferent to ideas expressed in traditional western art. The mass media’s preoccupation with sexual violence has perpetuated this state of alienation even further. It has become nearly impossible communicate a deep understanding of tradition subjects. Schaeffer gives the following example:
“There are some African languages in which the future tense does not exist. (This linguistically reflects a theological belief in animistic fatalism.) Thus for some tribes there is no way to discuss the future as we would understand it; what the ancestors did of old will be done again tomorrow. An African health worker who is confronted by such linguistic barriers to progress and tries to explain some future project, for instance changing a tribal custom in a way that will be of benefit hygienically, has a nearly impossible task. The very words do not exist with which to describe a different future reality.”
To discuss traditional nude figurative art one is faced with an opposite challenge. Both political sides of contemporary society are alienated from their cultural traditions and rituals of past reality. When I look at this photograph, the first thing that comes to my mind is the classical Greek theme of the Three Graces. The overwhelming beauty of the figures express Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden. But to the sham swine and lost sheep, the three girls are just wasting their time, they really should be sitting in school to get a good education to be productive citizens.
Since the cultural traditions have become alien to the collective social conscious, the subtext of Hamilton’s work is often misunderstood. Granted, Hamilton’s work had more acceptance when it was created due to the counter-culture’s attempt to maintain the subjective values of culture. Hamilton said the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach was an influence on his work. Cranach’s dainty figures of Eve and Venus resemble some of Hamilton’s standing figures. Schaeffer explained the subtext that many Renaissance artists worked by:
“The Florentine philosophers and theologians during the Renaissance taught that of the two aspects of love, divine and earthly, divine love was superior. To express contempt for the things of this world, they believed that divine love should be symbolized by a naked woman. Earthly love was portrayed as a clothed woman, rich dressed and bejeweled.”
The innocent girls in Hamilton’s work can be interpreted as reflecting a contempt for things of this world. This was the spirit of the dissenting youth who rejected the plastic culture which is poor in its sensitivity to nature and beauty. Of all of Hamilton’s photographs, this is probably my favorite image by him. The sweet girl appears to be writing a heart in the sand with her foot. Such an image is a world apart from the sham swine and lost sheep.
I recall a few occasions when I showed photographs of petite models to friends. I recall my friend complained that Kate Moss was so flat that she look like a twelve-year-old. Then he raved about how breast implants are so great. My other friend responded in a similar way to Guinevere Van Seenus, we were looking at different models in French Photo magazine. He said he liked all the models but then he pointed to the photo of Guinevere and said, “except for that.” I considered Guinevere to be the most lovely of girls in the magazine! These experiences actually infuriated me, many men suffer from a perverted perception of beauty due to mass media images. Not only are young women made to feel inferior if they do not measure up to Hefnarian standards, but men who are attracted to petite women can be made feel there something wrong with their attraction. The beauty of this fair maiden is so overwhelming, it certainly does not matter that she has a little bust.
Mina was one of the most recognizable models who posed for Hamilton due to the distinctive dimple in her chin. This simple portrait is a masterpiece of form. Such expressions of the heart seem to belong to ancient times.
I am aware that some of Hamilton’s photographs are erotic but my view of beauty was fortunately shaped by his more innocent images that I knew when I was young. This beautiful girl appears as if she is praying. The lost sheep obviously have no tolerance for that. They assume that she should have the privilege of a cell phone with unlimited data, talk and text…… the true path to happiness.