David Hamilton, a widely published British photographer whose alluring images of young women were variously celebrated as art and condemned as pornography, died Nov. 25 in Paris. He was 83 and had recently professed his innocence after a former child model accused him of raping her three decades ago.
Emergency officials told The Associated Press that Hamilton was discovered at his apartment in cardiac arrest. Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office, said on Nov. 29 that the autopsy identified asphyxiation as the cause of death. Suicide is the leading theory in the investigation, she said, but it has not yet been confirmed.
In a long career that spanned film and still photography, fashion and portraiture, Hamilton became internationally known for his ethereal images of girls on the cusp of womanhood.
Some models he photographed in the nude. Others wore thin, even translucent garb or floral crowns. He favored a soft-focus style that imbued his images with an immediately recognizable quality - the Hamilton blur, it was called.
In his photography, published in volumes with titles including “Dreams of a Young Girl” and “The Age of Innocence,” Hamilton said that he sought to depict the “candor of a lost paradise.”
“Nudity and purity, sensuality and innocence, grace and spontaneity - we made contradictions of them,” Hamilton once told an interviewer. “I try to harmonize them, and that’s my secret, and the reason for my success.”
That success was the subject of intense debate, with Hamilton’s admirers comparing him to French painters of the 17th and 18th centuries.
He sees his subjects “through a shimmering haze of delight, half fatherly, half loverly, as shy, enchanting creatures who live in a world that is several degrees removed from real life,” New York Times photography critic Gene Thornton wrote in 1978.
“It is an ideal world of the thought,” Thornton continued, “that in painting is associated with the names of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, a world that is deeply moving because it resonates with real feelings that real people have about life, yet is not, in any usual sense of the word, realistic at all.”
Other viewers did not see Hamilton’s output in the same idyllic light. Times film critic A.O. Scott described “Bilitis” (1977), one of several movies that Hamilton directed in the 1970s and 1980s, as a work of “gauzy, arty, breathlessness” and an exemplar of “soft-core artsploitation pictures.” Photography critic Sarah Boxer, also writing in the Times, called “The Age of Innocence” and its images of bare-breasted girls as the “essence of icky,” and the author as someone who could be “considered a dirty old man.”
In the 1990s, conservative radio host Randall Terry lobbied law enforcement officials to pursue charges against the bookseller Barnes & Noble for selling “The Age of Innocence” and other volumes containing nude images of children. In one case, a Tennessee district attorney dropped obscenity charges after Barnes & Noble agreed to display copies of Hamilton’s books on higher shelves, out of children’s reach.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Hamilton dismissed his critics as the “great unlaid.”
According to the Guardian, he located his models during what he described as “shopping” expeditions on the beaches of Southern France. Because of his renown, parents permitted him to photograph their children.
One model, the French radio host Flavie Flament, published in October an autobiographical novel, “The Consolation,” in which she recalled being raped at age 13 by a photographer she did not name. Her portrait by Hamilton appeared on the cover.
Flament later identified Hamilton as her alleged assailant after several women contacted her, she recounted, to say that they, too, had been victimized.
Hamilton threatened to sue his accusers.
“Clearly the instigator of this media lynching is looking for her 15 minutes of fame by defaming me in her novel,” he said in a statement reported Nov. 22 by the Agence France-Presse. He decried the media for “presenting these accusations like the truth. I was accused several years ago and cleared. I am innocent and should be considered so.”
Hamilton was born in London on April 15, 1933. British newspapers reported that he was evacuated during the bombings of World War II to Dorset, in southwest England.
He studied architecture before becoming a fashion photographer, working for magazines including Elle in France. He later became art director at the Printemps department store in Paris. His artwork appeared on postcards and in calendars, in addition to fashion magazines.
The Daily Telegraph reported that his marriage to Gertrude Hamilton was dissolved. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.
Responding to critics who equated his photography with pornography, Hamilton evoked the memory of another artist he said was poorly understood: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the 19th-century author of “Alice in Wonderland,” who had intense relationships with young girls, at times photographing them in the nude.
“If Lewis Carroll were alive today he would be in jail!” Hamilton told the Los Angeles Times, using Dodgson’s pen name. “He was a wonderful man!”