Posts Tagged David Hamilton

Young Bodies – part 2

We have already established the differences between nakedness and nudity but now we must ask ourselves what it means to depict these in art. Our photographers all attempt to comment on the growth and development of children but to what end? This can only be answered if one establishes how the child’s body is displayed to us. Are they only expressing themselves through their nakedness or are they offered as a nude where their body becomes an object of nakedness for our pleasure and satisfaction? It is the photographer that has the responsibility to distinguish between the two for either he photographs with an intention to provoke sexual desire or he does not.

The social habit of humans is to establish how well one relates to another. This may be on a purely mutual basis although when confronted with the naked body of another the tendency is to ignore that persons characteristics and focus on what the eye can see. The sexual function of nakedness is such that it has a positive visual value in its own right; we want to see the other naked. Therefore it becomes very difficult to photograph nakedness. In the few cases where the artist achieves this it is because there is no room in the picture for the spectator. As an onlooker he is able to recognize beauty but cannot help but feel isolated from it, as if it were in a world far removed from his own. What a picture of this nature requires is the introduction of banality. Elements of familiarity and predictability are given to outweigh those of the forbidden and mysterious.

Image Copyright © Jock Sturges

If we accept this as truth then Sturges’ pictures cannot be seen as being provocative. By photographing naturists the spectator is brought to a realisation that they are naked for themselves and not for his pleasure or as a means of gratifying his curiosity. He beholds the image of a group of girls sprawled across the sand and recognises their beauty but it is not their youth that isolates him from this group. Rather it is their lifestyle which produces banality and establishes a sense of reality.

With this understanding we can now begin to distinguish between the work of Sturges and Hamilton; if Sturges photographs the naked then Hamilton pictures the nude. In his pictures we behold the mysterious and forbidden; young girls beginning to realise the changes in their body and perhaps exploring these changes for the first time. By this the pictures are made to appeal to the sexuality of the spectator and have nothing to do with the sexuality of the model. They are made to arouse and if ever there is any doubt as to whether or not this is true his books provide us with helpfully erotic quotations that accompany each image to reinforce this:

“I undressed to climb a tree; my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark; my sandals climbed upon the branches. High up, but still beneath the leaves and shaded from the heat, I straddled a wide-spread fork and swung my feet into the void. It had rained. Drops of water fell and flowed upon my skin. My hands were soiled with moss and my heels were reddened by the crushed blossoms. I felt the lovely tree living when the wind passed through it; so I locked my legs tighter, and crushed my open lips to the hairy nape of a bough.” (Pierre Louys)

Image Copyright © David Hamilton

 The composition of this picture and the nature of the quoted poem that it appears next to lead us to conclude that the image was specifically made to illustrate this text. One does not need to delve too deeply into the picture as Louys (1870-1925) describes it with far more authority than anyone else could. However this photograph, as a visual tribute to the poem fulfils the same function which is to excite. The combination of picture and poem when viewed by the male spectator allow him a window into a fantasy land where he becomes the tree on which the girl pleasures herself. This window which allows the viewer to identify with someone or something within the picture is a common characteristic of any erotic or pornographic image and stands in contrast to the work of Sturges here before discussed.

With this in mind we can ask ourselves is it ethical to portray children in this way. To answer this it is important to understand the reasons as to why art is made. Like anything else it is made to be possessed but its purpose is not practical, rather it is for the gratification of the owner. He looks to the artist to present him with all that he finds beautiful and to place within his easy reach those things to which he is attached. Given the sexual nature of the pictures we can conclude that it is Hamilton’s wish to present his collectors with girls who are misrepresented as objects to be possessed, even though they have not yet reached an age of full development. Possible implications of this will be that pictures are being produced to provide pleasure to those who take sexual gratification from children. 

Despite the changes in art that have happened over hundreds of years we have seen that there exist some aspects that have remained very much the same as they were when painters of the past first put brush to canvas. This may only be the purpose of art in that it is something to be possessed for the pleasure of the collector but even if art itself refuses to change it cannot be denied that what is considered to be acceptable has moved forward dramatically. It is only by these standards that we can judge what is acceptable and what is not.

The work of Sally Mann offers the spectator an alternative from the smiling faces of the family photo album. In her pictures we see three children living as all children do and despite many of them being carefully thought out fictions they display a sense of reality not found in the work of Sturges or Hamilton. By this the images tell the story of all children as much as they do about Mann’s.    

The work of Sally Mann offers the spectator an alternative from the smiling faces of the family photo album. In her pictures we see three children living as all children do and despite many of them being carefully thought out fictions they display a sense of reality not found in the work of Sturges or Hamilton. By this the images tell the story of all children as much as they do about Mann’s.    

David Hamilton represents the opposite; his pictures apply the same techniques that have been used for hundreds of years to romanticise youth. Within them he presents us with an object rather than a person and so those he professes to represent are ignored for who they are and instead become a possession to provide gratification for the collector.  

Today the values that people hold vary so greatly that the arguments herein presented may never be resolved however the debates that surround the work of our selected photographers have gone a long way to affirm art historian Anne Higonnet’s conclusion that ‘No subject is as publicly dangerous now as the subject of the child’s body’.       

 References

  1. BERGER, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.
  2. ELLIS, A. 1984. Much Worse To Come Home To. The British Journal of Photography, 131 (34), p. 901.
  3. MAVOR, C. 1996. Pleasures Taken: Performance of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. London: IB Tauris.
  4. PARKER, R. & POLLOCK, G. 1987. Framing feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970 – 1985. London: Pandora Press.
  5. PARSONS, S. 2008. Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann. History of Photography. 32 (2), pp. 123 – 136.

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Young Bodies – part 1

The notion of photographing children at a time when the idea of ‘correctness’ has such an emphasis placed upon it presents the photographer with a challenge where every detail of the photographs can be closely scrutinised. Perhaps it could be argued that such legality is an unnecessary nuisance and an unreasonable barrier on the artist. The photographers whose work is to be discussed in this publication have all been the subject of dispute over the rights and wrongs of photographing children. This essay has been written to address this subject; it will do so by examining what art is and why it is made, what it means to be naked and why it is depicted by the artist. Of our three photographers Sally Mann (b.1951) is perhaps the best known and without a doubt her most recognisable collection was Immediate Family published in 1992. Jock Sturges (b.1947) is well known for his pictures of nudists, many of whom are adolescents and David Hamilton (b.1933) is recognised as one of the most commercially successful photographers alive today due to his photographs of young girls. All these photographers have either made or continue to make children and adolescents the central focus of their ongoing work. By examining their work using the criteria here before laid down we can determine whether or not their pictures can be considered acceptable.

Image Copyright © Sally Mann

Typically Mann’s images explore childhood themes such as the games her children play whilst staying at the family’s summer cabin on the banks of a river. The setting is idyllic and the word setting must be used rather than location because despite the pictures natural look, which may or may not have been the photographer’s intention, there are signs that many of them have been carefully considered and composed. The reason this point is so important is that it raises a valid question; if such time and care went into the making of these pictures how real is their depiction of Mann’s children. These pictures can easily be viewed as a photographic essay recording the lives of these three children but Sally Mann regards herself as an artist, so whilst we may wish to consider them natural through the eyes of a mother the question remains; do they have to be naked? One picture in particular found within the pages of Immediate Family raises an important question. The picture is of a young boy, probably no older than ten years. The child is looking directly at the camera, there is no smile on his face and he adopts a stance as though he were an animal about to bolt away from a would be predator; to dive into the dark waters and swim out of sight.

Image Copyright © Sally Mann

What is interesting about this picture is its title; the last time Emmett modelled nude. From this are we to believe that the boy was asked to undress specifically for this picture? If this is the case then there must have been reasons for doing so and how are the public supposed to read the image? Mann’s pictures attracted a great deal of praise from art critics but the images also spawned criticism. Upon its release the book caused a great deal of controversy with some activists calling it child pornography. Kiku Adatto, the director of child studies at Harvard wrote of Immediate Family that Mann photographed ‘her own young children nude in erotic poses, or posed as victims of abuse and incest’.   

Image Copyright © Jock Sturges

An image that bears striking similarities to the previous can be found within the pages of Sturges’ book The Last Day of Summer. This time a young girl is pictured and although we are not told it can be supposed that she is approximately the same age as Emmett. From the way the light has been used it could be said that both pictures are almost identical and perhaps one drew inspiration from the other but the differences are in the stance of the subject. There is no evident pose and no pulled face. There is only a child standing in a river, her arms at her side with her shoulders held ever so slightly back so as if to exaggerate her nakedness.

Whilst both Emmett and this girl show us no smile the expression of character the boy reveals through his lowered eyebrows and pursed lips is lacking in this picture. Indeed the face of this child is altogether expressionless. Here is a picture that is very much about the body of the subject. This makes it one of the finest examples of images that display limitations. The viewer is left with questions rather than answers and their interpretation of the image is far more reaching. It raises questions about morality and nakedness and the conclusions people reach will each be effected by who they are as individuals.

Misunderstandings of what Sturges is trying to represent is as easy as misunderstanding what nakedness means. To be naked is to be oneself; the casting off of coverings that disguises the truth. To be nude is to be seen as naked by others but only as an object of desire. Concerning Sturges’ work this presents the viewer with a conundrum. His subjects are naturists and so display their nakedness as being themselves but for the viewer to see the images as an offence they would have to view them as nudes and so would be seeing them as objects rather than people. With this in mind it must be considered; are critics offended by what they see or are they offended by what they perceive the photograph to represent.

Considering this we can perhaps begin to understand the decisions of the individual photographers as to why they have decided on a subject without clothing. All of these pictures challenge the viewer in their own way, whether it be by displaying an alternative image of what childhood is or by offering an unorthodox interpretation of what becoming an adult means.

Mann approaches the subject by offering a realistic and gritty image of children that for many would go against the idealistic view of youth that family photo albums represent and despite their natural appearance many of them are fictions of her creation which may or may not apply to her children.

Image Copyright © Sally Mann

The pictures document the emergence of adult behaviour as much as they display childhood antics and with the book being made over a number of years we are given the opportunity to watch the children grow and develop in a way that the images of our other featured photographers do not. Candy Cigarette may have been carefully composed but it represents a significant change in a child’s life. Here Jessie is pictured holding what may be mistaken for a cigarette if it were not for the title. She holds it as if it were one for in her minds eye it is. Suddenly this sweet treat becomes a tool of rebellion. She is rebelling against the adults she has always been taught to respect.

Her eyes connect with the viewer to make this rebellion as much against them as against her parents and suddenly without knowing it she has commenced her own journey to becoming an adult. Sturges and Hamilton take a different approach and in both artists work the emergence of sexuality can clearly be seen. Sturges does not shy away from addressing this subject in some of his pictures.

Several images show glimpses of children expressing curiosity in each others bodies and in an image of two young boys holding hands we see what may be the photographers wish to photograph the emergence of homosexuality. Holding hands is not a classic trait of any boy and given that all the pictures in Sturges’ books are posed we have to conclude that this action was at the request of the photographer.

David Hamilton places a much more erotic view on the subject. Naturally his work has been the subject of much debate but despite harsh criticism Hamilton continues to produce books at a rate of almost one per year since his 1971 Dreams of a Young Girl, which featured in an exhibition of the same year at the Photographers Gallery entitled Four Masters of Erotic Photography. His pictures are deeply rooted in early romantic examples of art. Well known paintings such as Sleeping Venus by the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione (1477-1510) is just one example of work that depicted women in the positions that Hamilton’s models assume.

The painting was one of Giorgione’s last works and was completed in 1510 shortly after his death. It is now generally accepted that the landscape and sky were painted by the artist Tiziano Vecellio (1488-1576), better known as Titan whose own painting, Venus of Urbino is strikingly similar.

Giorgione seems to have taken great care when painting his Sleeping Venus. The connection between the shape of the woman’s body and the landscape speak of their relationship as being natural, organic objects. The principle spectator of such images was always assumed to be the man therefore it would be for this audience that the artist would paint. For men the landscape has always been an object of possession and so the women of these paintings immediately became objects of the same kind.  

Due to their similarities this is repeated in Titans painting; Venus loosely clutches a posy of flowers in her right hand. The presence of the flowers is important in a way that may go by unnoticed today. Being red roses they symbolize love and passion but were also considered to be symbolic of the Virgin Mary and so what at first appears to be little more than a handful of plants suddenly becomes a provocation of sexuality; the young woman arrayed in all her natural beauty, her eyes staring directly at the viewer as if unconcerned with her nudity. She is passionate and yet she is also a virgin and as such becomes the object of mans desire, an object that is waiting to be possessed. This is made all the more obvious by the erotic underlying of both paintings; the right arms being held back to expose the breasts and left hand resting provocatively over the vulva which in both cases dominates centre frame.

This romantic way of seeing is recreated in Hamilton’s pictures. Classical poses such as these are not an uncommon sight in many photographs of this nature but is it ethical to apply them to children? What one must consider is the changing nature of what is acceptable. The days of Giorgione and Titan have long since passed and with them their opinions on how people should be depicted. Views on women are one example. The accepted idea of the woman as the subservient figure to man no longer prevails just as the strict morel guidelines concerning children that did not exist then exist today. In this sense surely the romanticised image Hamilton produces has a narrower audience?

In this next photograph we behold the very obvious characteristics of the erotic image; raised arms that that fall back behind the flower adorned head to reveal the body which is cast in seductive light and thoughtfully contrasted against the pale background. However there are more subtle details which we will often subconsciously interpret. The flowers have likely been placed upon her head to emphasis the innocence of the girl and to display her connection to childish things.

Image Copyright © David Hamilton

 This helps to reinforce our understanding of her age and with this in mind we make the association to virginity. It is also important to note that none of Hamilton’s pictures are captioned with the names of the models. Indeed the models remain nameless throughout. Is this not strikingly similar to the two paintings that we have just studied? European art produced many different examples of these types of paintings and the perhaps the most reproduced figure in the genre was Venus. It became the name for the nameless woman and the label for the object of sexual fantasy. By denying the spectator the name of the model Hamilton is presenting us with Venus; the object of sexual desire.

(To be continued).

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