The Can of Worms Opened After Iconic Photographer Accused of Rape Commits Suicide

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A still from “Bilitis,” a 1977 film directed by David Hamilton.
A still from “Bilitis,” a 1977 film directed by David Hamilton.Credit: Films 21/Mars /The Kobal Colle

Generations of photographers have tried, and still try, to achieve the blurry effect named after British photographer David Hamilton, whose signature style was called the "Hamilton Blur." It helped create nostalgic-romantic pictures, somewhere between memory and dream.

“You achieve [the effect] by smearing Vaseline on the lens,” explains Parisian fashion photographer Olivier Jeanne-Rose, thereby killing the magic. “You see? Even at the symbolic level, there were hints of what happened there.”

Blurriness, and not just in his pictures, characterized Hamilton’s career, from its early days in the 1960s on the beaches of southern France to its violent end on November 25. At 8:30 P.M. that evening, Hamilton’s cleaning lady entered the apartment of the 83-year-old photographer on Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris, and found him with a plastic bag over his head and medications close at hand. Emergency teams arrived quickly but were unable to resuscitate him. He was pronounced dead, apparently by suicide.

Almost at once the microphones turned to another well-known personality. A month earlier, French TV and radio host Flavie Flament broke 29 years of silence and revealed how, at age 13, she was raped by a prominent international photographer. Later she named her attacker: David Hamilton. Then came the morbid end of an affair that has excited the French media in recent weeks. When other women related similar experiences with the photographer, the “Hamilton blur” effect suddenly seemed less dreamy.

The fall of the veteran photographer was sharp and swift. It began with the publication of Flament’s autobiographical novel, “La Consolation,” on October 19. Flament, 42, grew up in Normandy as Flavie Lecanu. At age 16, she won a beauty competition sponsored by OK magazine. She began her television career as a weather presenter on the Canal+ channel. From the year 2000, as the host of daily programs – among them entertainment magazines and reality shows – she became a permanent prime-time guest in many French homes. At a certain point she even revealed her impressive salary: 400,000 euros a year. Seven years ago she moved over to radio, where, she said, she gained the recognition as a journalist that television had denied her.

Flament’s 'La Consolation'Credit: JC Lattès

In her book and the many interviews she gave since its publication, Flament speaks about the summer of 1987, when her family took a vacation at the Mediterranean resort of Cap d’Agde. The place was popular among nudists, and a nudist colony still functions there today. “An internationally renowned photographer discovered me on the terrace of a café, and proposed that I come with him for some trial shots,” relates Flament.

At first, she avoided naming him for fear of being sued for libel. “I went to his apartment. That day he wore Bermuda shorts and sandals. I went back the next day with my mother, and he greeted us at the door completely naked, with just the camera lying on his belly.”

Flament openly blames her mother, who left her alone with Hamilton, thereby giving him “permission” to rape her. “You’re 13. Facing you is a man of over 50. He tells you to lie down on the balcony and begins to do things that you know are shocking. So you leave My soul separated from my body.”

Until a few years ago, Flament had repressed the memories of that day. Then they began returning as flashbacks – pictures, voices, disturbing thoughts – and she went into therapy. In the course of treatment, she came across one of the photographs from that period and the dam burst.

British photographer and film director David HamiltonCredit: BERND WEISSBROD/AFP

On November 17, a week before Hamilton took his own life, the magazine L’Obs (previously Le Nouvel Observateur) dropped another bombshell: Two women, using assumed names, told of similar incidents during that same period. “Lucy,” who was also 13 at the time, and “Alice,” who was 14, said that everyone in Cap d’Agde knew David Hamilton. The famous photographer bought an apartment by the beach, and would go out every day to look for models. 

The two women described the man’s modus operandi in similar terms. L’Obs summarized it pithily as “inappropriate caresses, the head that was suddenly between their legs, penetration, and their own sense of freezing.” “Afterward he told me I was lucky,” Alice was quoted as saying, “that he chose me even though I wasn’t pretty at all, and that other girls would die for him to do to them what he had done to me.”

In 1997, 10 years after the encounter with Hamilton, she filed a complaint against him, but the case was closed. She considered filing a civil suit, she told the magazine, but lacked the financial resources.

Hamilton died after 50 years of more-or-less steady success. He was born in London in 1933, and grew up in an England at war. He studied architecture but moved to Paris in his 20s, worked for the magazine Elle as a graphic designer alongside Swiss photographer Peter Knapp, and later as its artistic director. He only began his photographic career at age 33.

Hamilton’s style was influenced by Impressionism. His initial successes were in the fashion world: His pictures appeared in many magazines, Vogue among them, and designer Nina Ricci hired him for an advertising campaign. By the mid-1970s he had become an international establishment figure. His books of photography became best-sellers and his wall calendars were sold around the world. His work graced prestigious venues like the Library of Congress and the Danish royal palace. Hamilton directed five movies, which, like many of his photographs, dealt with first erotic experiences.

His wife Gertrude, who was involved in some of his work, got her start as one of his models. His previous 20-year relationship with Mona Kristensen also began with a photo-shoot; he never worked with professional models.

Despite Hamilton’s artistic reputation, a simple search for his name on Google Images will make a surfer squirm. Scrolling down reveals a seemingly endless parade of the photographs that brought him glory: intimate portraits of adolescent or even prepubescent girls, all fair and slender. They are photographed in soft light, partly or completely nude. Flowers, sheets and pale exposed skin radiate from the screen.

In a 2013 interview on the TV5Monde channel, Hamilton insisted that all he wanted was to immortalize a rare moment that embodies absolute purity alongside the eroticism. “Like Lolita, this stage lasts for just a few months it’s a magical moment, [because] then they become women, and spread their wings and fly.”

Hamilton mentioned Vladimir Nabokov’s book as a work that influenced him, and that he and Nabokov shared an obsession with purity. “What draws me to young girls? Ask a psychiatrist,” Le Monde quoted him in 2007. 

Aware of how the world around him had changed, Hamilton admitted in an interview three years ago that today he would not be able to do the work he did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. “It was the age of innocence, like the title of one of my books. There is no more innocence today. We live in a world of media scandals. It has destroyed everything,” he said.

Material for pedophiles

The influence of the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s has faded with time, and the attitude toward Hamilton’s work has changed. At a British child pornography trial of a man found in possession of tens of thousands of banned pictures, the court ruled that some of Hamilton’s photographs fit the definition of illegal material. “Not everyone who owns a Hamilton book is a pedophile,” explains Jeanne-Rose, “but many pedophiles own his books.”

In the last decades of his career, in response to criticism of the nudity of his young models, the controversial photographer focused on nature instead.

Two days before his death, Hamilton responded to the accusations against him. “I didn’t do a thing,” he told Agence France-Presse. “There has been no investigation against me. I am innocent and I should be regarded as such unless proven guilty. The media lynch ‘architect’ wants her 15 minutes of glory through slander. I will be filing a number of complaints in the coming days,” he vowed.

His anticipated legal confrontation with Flament will not take place. She spoke to the media the day after Hamilton’s death: “I think about all the girls he raped in their childhood, who have now come forward to fight the injustice they have suffered. His cowardice has once again condemned us to silence. He has deprived us of the hope of seeing him pay for what he has done. The news of his terrible death will never erase all our sleepless nights.”

Hamilton’s dream-girl pictures left a deep mark on photographers, fashion designers and magazine editors. Even if it’s no longer acceptable to leave 13-year-old girls alone with naked 50-year-old photographers, and the beauty industry is packaged in political correctness and professionalism, one thing hasn’t changed since the days of Cap d’Agde: That short magical moment that ends before the 16th birthday of the world’s models is for the most part what determines their future in the field.

“Not true,” protests Jeanne-Rose. “The approach today is completely different. The girl-woman image we look for represents something else. She’s not submissive, as she would have been with Hamilton. The girls the agencies send me are not 13-year-olds. They know what they’re doing, and are not pushed into it by their parents. And one other little thing – they are never naked.”

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