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.
sturdes

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.

 

David Hamilton: bringing a soft focus to soft-core porn

Much of David Hamilton’s work celebrates the sensuality of young pre- and post-pubescent women. It is also the celebration of the exceptional beauty and of his young models and also a celebration of of many of the women.

Much of Bailey’s work can be seen in reference to the work of a number of painters and sculptors: Degas is a very good example of Hamilton’s onwards to earlier artists. The photos of the ballet dancers represent a high point in Hamilton’s art.

David Hamilton's homage to Degas

David Hamilton’s homage to Degas

Edgar-Degas-Dancer-Putting-on-Her-Slipper-Oil-Painting

There are other paintings that Hamilton draws directly from

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degas ballerinas

But Hamilton can’t resist popping a nude into the background, to what effect desired to understand the Sydney draws the viewer’s eye away from the central figure in the photo and certainly lessens its impact.

There is also a beautiful sculpture by Degas

degas

that Hamilton probably had in mind when he photographed this nude.

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The self preoccupation of these two young women is a constant theme in Hamilton’s work. Time and again we see his models lost in a reverie that precludes the viewer all of which goes to enhance the ethereal and otherworldly nature of much of Hamilton’s work.

David Hamilton's Demoiselles

David Hamilton’s Demoiselles

In this photograph the three women are almost oblivious to each other. Two of them appear to be watching something on the ground and the other has turned away. Are they reflecting on some shared experience, if so they appear to be distancing themselves from it as their gazes appear to show no sense of engagement with whatever is just outside the frame of the photograph. True to form, Hamilton later gives us the nude version of this photograph

graces

It’s a beautifully composed piece, with carefully modulated light falling on the models, two of whom frame the third. Again there is a sense of sad reflection, they all look slightly crestfallen, heaven knows what they’ve been up to.

Another three young women appear in Hamilton’s version of the Three Graces

Hamilton's Three young Graces

Hamilton’s Three young Graces

It’s a bit unfair, but it is a pretty anaemic work when compared with Hans von Aachen’s work

Graces von axhen

What is really goes to show is that the use of soft focus and washed-out pallet, while extremely beautiful and appealing, sacrifices are lots of dramatic impact. The languid poses of the three Hamilton models lack the dramatic tension of the figures in the painting.

Perhaps one of the things that is most noticeable in Hamilton’s work is that, by and large, the models/subjects really do not relate to each other. The most knowledgeable exception is in the series of photographs taken in and around the farmhouse and on the jetty in France.

The photo in the farmyard with the two young women and the birds is one of Hamilton’s masterpieces

Farm and doves

It is a brilliant composition. There is a subtle tonal variation in the grey greens of the wall, the grass and the young woman’s clothing. The two major visual elements of the photo the light falling on the birds and the two young women are bound together by the bird that is in flight. Hamilton has managed to capture the line that runs down from the head of the model on the left over the model on the right and then up into the wings of the bird. It is truly a “decisive moment” photograph. There’s also a sense that she young women are retching engaged in some social activity, feeding the birds in this case and the visual and emotional elements of the photo are held together in a way that is not often the case in Hamilton’s work.

Another outstanding photo from this series is the picture of the two young women on the jetty.

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Again it’s a Hamilton classic. Two beautiful long-legged young woman, bathed in a etherial light and seated on a jetty that leads out into the background.

Compositionally, it’s very similar to the picture of the same two young women in the bicycle photo.

bicycle 2.

There is also a series of photographs of the two young women sharing a bath.

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The light from the window floods into the room and separates the two young women. There is some tension flowing between the two of them. The one on the left appears to be contemplating an answer, not engaging with her companion whose body language suggests some form of reproof has flown between them. Again, it’s Hamilton at his best pulling together the compositional and emotional elements of the photograph.

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