November 2nd, 2009


If one life has been saved by this photography session, it has been worth it

On Saturday, following the example of artists who'd reconstructed the Unabomber's library, I made a tentative effort to put together a shelf of the books I'd have had at the age of 18. I suppose the idea of such reconstructions is that books also construct us -- they can be the building blocks of our subsequent personality -- and that by reconstructing a library we're reconstructing a construction, and therefore suggesting that different books could have resulted in a different person.

But it isn't just books. If I think back to the Edinburgh bedroom of the teenaged me, there are posters on the walls, too. They're by David Hamilton, a British photographer living in France who specialises in soft-focus soft porn images of pubescent girls. Did David Hamilton's images "construct" my adolescent sexuality? I think they very possibly did. I was a rather sheltered virgin at a boys-only school. The internet didn't exist then, so I'd never really even seen porn. I would probably believe anything you told me about what girls, what women, "really" were.

Why did I choose to believe David Hamilton? Well, his images reflected me in female form. Like these girls, I was a teenager of slim build. Like them, I was somewhat refined and naive. Like them, I embraced a somewhat late 19th century aesthetic, a Wildean decadence. I was even, at 17, developing a bookish myopia which threw the entire world into the kind of gauzy soft focus Hamilton favoured.

I didn't at that time know the "pagan sensuality" of Pierre Louÿs, nor had I seen David Hamilton's film of his 1894 poetry collection Songs of Bilitis. All I had was Hamilton's poster of a ballerina, and -- I'm pretty sure -- the one of the two girls at the picnic table. Despite the "decadent" label -- and the fact that in a post-Polanski France, a hysterical-about-child-sexuality Britain and a puritan America these images certainly don't read now the way they did in the 1970s -- these are "innocent" images to have grown up with. If I were 17 now, I'm sure I'd be seeing much, much harder stuff.

It was in Japan, though, that I encountered the only other person to have been impressed as much by David Hamilton as I was; Kahimi Karie. The photographer-turned-singer loved Hamilton so much that she put one of his images on an early Kahimi Karie t-shirt. This t-shirt inspired me to go off and write one of my most beautiful songs, the fluid, languid composition which just bears the photographer's name as its title:

Exemplifying the post-feminist guilt of a lot of my Kahimi material, this song gives a humourously jaundiced view of Hamilton's work. Read the lyric and you'll see that the tale of a modeling session is told from the point of view of one of the waif-like nymphs; "bored and slightly chilly", she wonders why the photographer must "gild the lily" with his umbrella flash, his liquid nitrogen, his carbon snow.

Then again, the song's narrator is happy to live in the South of France, in the lap of luxury, at Mr Hamilton's expense, lying in bed until 3pm "with nothing on", and grateful that "he only asks for photos in return". In the end, she's philosophical: "If this lazy suffering can bring erection to the lap of just one man it hasn't been in vain". That's a crib from a line of Howard Devoto's: "If one life has been saved by this photography session it has been worth it."

I'm not sure if any photography session can save a life, but influence a life? Oh yes, photography can do that. For better or for worse, for richer or poorer, for harder or softer focus.