Jock Sturges and David Hamilton: two different ways of photographing young women

On International Women’s Day it is interesting to reflect again on the way women are depicted in both art and photography.

The biblical heroine Susannah has been portrayed and sexualised since the Renaissance and is an excellent example of changing societal and artistic attitudes towards women. Her story is told in the book of Daniel. She was bathing in her garden and a group of elders is watching. 
They tell her unless she has sex with them, they will accuse her of adultery, the penalty for which is death stoning. She refuses and is tried. Daniel intervenes the in the trial and she is acquitted. The elders were stoned (in the bad way). Because the story involves her naked in her garden, it is excellent combination of biblical, which made its artistic representation acceptable, and the erotic, which made it interesting.

Alessandro Allori’s is probably the most erotic of the Renaissance versions.

More modern versions such, as those by Samsonov, show Susanna as a far more ambiguous figure. She is less the victim and more a participant, albeit unwilling, but her role has certainly changed.

For my commentary see Susannah: from biblical heroine to pop pornstar

Two modern photographers who, in many ways typify provide changing attitudes towards women, in both cases towards young women, are David Hamilton and Jock Sturges.

I have written extensively and often critically on David Hamilton.

With the storm of controversy surrounding the suicide of David Hamilton, it is worth examining the work of Jock Sturges, an American photographer who suffered at the hands of his critics in much the same way Hamilton did. However, the similarity pretty much ends there.

Some background on Sturges:

On April 25, 1990, a group of FBI agents and officers of the San Francisco Police Department raided the studio of photographer Jock Sturges, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer — everything relating to his work as an internationally recognized fine art photographer, much of whose work involves nude portraiture of children and adolescents. The law officers discovered that they had taken on one of the art elite’s own as art communities, both in San Francisco and nationally, rallied around Sturges, his work, and the legitimacy of respectful nude photography of children and adolescents. Eventually, a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict Sturges on any charges.

Sturges’s work was again under legal attack. Grand juries in Montgomery, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, have indicted bookseller Barnes & Noble on child pornography and obscenity charges for selling Sturges’s book, Radiant Identities, as well as the work of British photographer David Hamilton.

Supporters of Randall Terry and his organization, Operation Rescue — best known for their protests against abortion clinics — take credit for bringing the books to the attention of prosecutors by such actions as physically destroying books in Barnes & Noble stores.

<> on August 25, 2009 in Reston, Virginia.

Randall Terry

“The state attorney general in Alabama, a man who is running for re-election, postulates that my work is ‘obscene material of people under the age of 17 involved in obscene acts.’ This is pretty chilling language because, in fact, the people in my pictures are not engaged in any acts at all,” said Sturges.”

“I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that.”

He does not seek to downplay the erotic content of his photographs. But it is of n entirely different nature from that in Hamilton.

“I will always admit immediately to what’s obvious, which is that Homo sapiens is inherently erotic or inherently sensual from birth.”

 I have argued that a significant proportion of David Hamilton’s work falls into the realm of softcore pornography.  I would also argue that a serious consideration of the work of Jock Sturges, whose work, I would argue, is in no way pornographic, would confirm this distinction.

Sturges differs from Hamilton in many respects, not least of which is that Sturges portrays  the latent sexuality of his subjects as part of the process of growing up whereas Hamilton was, for the most part, far more breathlessly voyeuristic. And there is an acquiescent eroticism and adolescent lesbianism in Hamilton’s work that is entirely absent in Sturges’.

In many ways, what personifies Sturges’ approach to his subjects is that he is a dispassionate photographer who, unlike Hamilton, observes rather than glamorises.

My favourite Sturges photograph is this one.

The two young women in the photograph are full of attitude, they are anti-models. The one on the left appears to be saying, “You want a photograph! Okay. Photograph this.” It’s a contrast to Hamilton’s work which is so beautiful and commercial. The models are so conscious of being photographed and the need to be beautiful.

You certainly couldn’t say that about the two young women in Sturges’s photo

I think that Sturges has certainly taken far better photographs, certainly in terms of composition.


Two views of female sexuality: David Hamilton’s Nymphettes and Norman Lindsay’s Amazons

This blog is a comparison of the work of two artists, one a photographer, the other a painter. The aim of the comparison is to shed light on the nature of their work by using each as a frame of reference for the other.

David Hamilton (1933 – ) is a British photographer and film director best known for his nude images of young girls.


As much of Hamilton’s work depicts early-teen girls, often nude, he has been the subject of some controversy and even child pornography allegations, similar to that which the work of Sally Mann and Jock Sturges has attracted.

Norman Alfred William Lindsay (22 February 1879 – 21 November 1969) was an Australian artist, etcher, sculptor, writer, editorial cartoonist, scale modeller and an accomplished amateur boxer.  

normanlindsay portrait.jpg

Lindsay is widely regarded as one of Australia’s greatest artists and, like Hamilton, has been surrounded by some controversy. His book The Age of Consent was banned in Australia until 1962. Sixteen crates of his paintings which were taken to the US were impounded by authorities and burnt for being indecent.

There is much in common between David Hamilton and Norman Lindsay. The first and most obvious commonality is their celebration of the naked female body. However,  their work is in quite different traditions of this celebration.

Lindsay subjects are big women with Amazonian, gravity-defying  breasts of impossible proportions and thighs to match.

This great tradition of big women goes back to Peter Paul Rubens, probably greatest celebrator of big women and also to Pierre-Auguste Renoir.


 Rubens Andromeda Chained to the Rocks (1638-1639)


Rubens’ The Judgement of Paris looks forward to Renoir’s big women.


Renoir The Large Bathers

Much of Hamilton’s work celebrates the latent, but developing, sexuality of young women, also known as nymphettes.  His work is strongly rooted in a more recent tradition  in literature, photography and cinema. Most notably in Nabokov’s Lolita

and a series of films about highly sexualised young women and older men.


Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jane March in The Lover. Mena Suvari n American Beauty, Ariel Besse in Beau Pere, Jane March Colour of Night and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

Hamilton is part of a photographic genre made famous by David Bailey and his portraits of the beauties of the 1960s and 70s.


Jean Shrimpton

bailey birkin.jpg

 Jane Birkin


and latterly Kate Moss

Perhaps  one of the most famous nymphettes is Natalie Portman as Matilda in Luc Besson’s  morally ambiguous The Professional.


These two different celebrations of the naked female body are apparent in a detail from Lindsay’s The Olympian Web, and in one of Hamilton’s portraits of the many beautiful young women that he photographed.



As well as their different traditions, both Lindsay and Hamilton have a very distinctive views of the sexuality of their subjects. In both cases, the depiction of this is closely linked to their stylistic approaches to their art.

There is a sense of innocence in Hamilton’s portrayal of youthful sexuality that is absent from Lindsay’s work. We see this in the etherial, dreamlike and, in many ways idealised, vision of innocent beauty and sexuality in Hamilton’s work.

sisters david hamilton 2



The sexuality of the young women in Hamilton’s photos has an inward and reflective aspect. Hamilton subjects very rarely look directly at the camera. They often appear preoccupied with some inner reality even when in the company of other young women.

Lindsay’s subjects, by comparison, are rarely reflective. Their sexuality is outgoing and aggressive and they are often focused on something, or someone, beyond the frame of the picture.


In  Lindsay’s The Invitation,  there is none of the demure innocence that characterises Hamilton’s work.  The invitation has a sense of sexual aggression and challenge that is frequently present in Lindsay’s portrayal of sexually desirable women. Certainly, there is a sense of the potency of female sexuality and power that is often in sharp contrast to the portrayal of the males in the paintings.


The Ragged Poet shows the poet, altogether a more attractive figure than the male in The Invitation,  surrounded by six women, all of whom appear to embody different aspects of female lust. While the women concentrate on the poet, he seems to be engaged with something beyond the frame of the picture, his art perhaps, which makes him oblivious to the  amorous attention of the women.


Another key difference is the embodiment of female beauty that the two artists celebrate. Hamilton subjects are young, long legged, blonde, delicately demure and almost impossibly beautiful.

Early work

nude classic

It is rare for Lindsay’s subjects to be as delicately demure.  And even at their most slender, they are still powerfully built women.

Norman Lindsay - The bathers.jpg

Many of Lindsay’s depiction of women were based on his muse and later, wife Rose Soady.



But often considerably enhanced.

Floral insperation.jpg

Floral Inspiration

(Four Nudes) By Norman Lindsay ,1937.jpg

Four Nudes

 Even from these few examples, it is clear that there is a richness to the narrative surrounding Lindsay’s paintings that is absent in Hamilton’s work which has a much narrower frame of reference. I will discuss this aspect of Lindsay’s work in my next blog.

David Hamilton’s soft porn images inspire new novel “The Merkin Chronicles