The British photographer David Hamilton, whose long career treated art appreciators and men everywhere to over twenty books bursting with soft-focus images of naked pubescent girls, died last week at age 83. It’s possible that he took his own life, as there are reports that when found in his Paris home by a neighbor, Hamilton had a plastic bag drawn over his head, a bottle of pills nearby. Perhaps, struck by a sudden, winter-of-the-soul realization of his role in normalizing – and providing fodder to fuel – the sexual objectification of girl-children by adult men, or of his own creative bankruptcy, Hamilton could no longer bear to live with himself. Or maybe he pulled the plastic bag over his head because four women had recently come forward with accounts of how Hamilton raped them when they modeled for him as children, and he could not bear the smear of being outed as a sexual predator. Since men’s consciences seem only rarely to suffer for either their crimes against females or for burdening the world with bad art, I’m going to say the latter is a safer bet.
Shortly before his death Hamilton denied the allegations against him, claiming he had done “nothing improper” and “nothing at all,” and threatened to sue one of the women, Flavie Flament, for defamation. In October, Flament published a semi-autobiographical novel in which she describes being raped by a famous photographer. Following the novel’s release, when she began to hear from other women whose experiences with said photographer mirrored her own, she publicly identified Hamilton as the “man who raped [her] when [she] was 13, the man who raped many young girls.” Since his death, Flament has charged the dead artist with cowardice for suiciding and depriving his victims the closure of ever seeing him convicted.
She is right that it was cowardly for Hamilton to abdicate responsibility by excusing himself from earthly existence. I wonder, however, if this act of cowardice is not such a sorry outcome. Are we to regret that he died? Frankly I am not up to the task of mourning his death. If he ought to have lived in order to be condemned, well, the majority of rapists escape conviction and in any case, under the French statue of limitations, the charges against Hamilton were too old to be tried. He never would have been convicted. And while I sympathize with the women’s desire to see their rapist treated as a criminal, I also question whether or not the established route of trial and penalty always, or ever, achieves real justice. With his suicide, Hamilton sentenced himself to death, a choice that rings of confession. Would an innocent man kill himself over false accusations? And what was he so afraid of, if not being known for what he was: a man who raped young girls? Hamilton’s suicide intimates his guilt, and although he is not here now to face the consequences, we can hope that the new posthumous stench of culpability will taint his artistic legacy.