Is James Hamilton the best photographer in New York?

10 Min Read

Any photographer who captures what’s happening in New York City’s shiny, raw, busy carnival—the shops and walls and towers and alleys, the celebrities, the endless cross-section of humanity—already has an artistic edge. But the other leg is what he or she does with it. Weegee shot down the violent night world of sin and crime. Diane Arbus captured the hidden freak show and showed us its humanity. Alfred Eisenstaedt and William Klein captured the hustle and bustle of everyday life. But when you watch “Uncropped,” an addictive look at the life and work of magazine and newspaper photographer James Hamilton, you might think: He’s the greatest New York photographer of them all.

Hamilton’s black-and-white images – we see hundreds of them in the documentary – have a polished tactility and a psychology so effortless that they all tell a story. The photos are beautiful in the gallery, but they are also a form of new journalism. He also showed us freaks and took his pictures of the celebrities meetingsand captured what his life partner, the writer Katherine Dobie, calls “the choreography of street life.”

That’s a great expression, because it suggests an order, a kind of orchestration – but of course no one choreographs street life. The ‘choreography’ such as it is, happens organically and unconsciously. It is human society organizing itself along the sidewalks of the urban jungle, and Hamilton’s images find that invisible order within the disorder. Sylvia Plachy, his fellow staff photographer at the Village Voice in the ’70s and ’80s, calls Hamilton a “classicist,” and he is completely obsessed with composition, with lighting that reflects sources as stylized as the film noirs in which he grew up. on. Yet there is never anything boring in Hamilton’s photos. They are miracles spontaneously classicism, as if he had plucked a moment out of thin air and made it timeless. His ability to construct a composition around an existential situation is a form of artistic voodoo.

What I’m really saying is that James Hamilton is a photographer who could and should have been much more famous – a household name, like Weegee or Arbus or Annie Liebovitz. But part of the fascination of “Uncropped,” directed and edited by DW Young, is that it shows you that Hamilton didn’t run his career that way. He was very successful, holding staff positions at Harper’s Bazaar and the Voice (when The Voice was the closest thing to a journalistic pulse), shooting covers for New York magazine and documenting the glitz party scene, which he portrayed with a kind of mischievous exposure. At The Voice, he made stories like the one in which he and reporter Michael Daly embedded themselves for days in a Coney Island street gang called the Homicids (which lived up to their name). When it came to taking risks, there was nothing James Hamilton couldn’t, wouldn’t or wouldn’t do.

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Yet Hamilton, born in 1946, is a rarity: a lifelong bohemian. In the documentary we see him wandering through Washington Square Park today, always with his camera. He is tall, with a shock of white hair and a voice of surprising velvety softness. He talks about how much he misses the analog days, when you had to go into the darkroom to discover what you had photographed. In the summer of ’66, Hamilton and two friends moved into a small apartment on University Place (the rent was $109), and it’s one he still lives in: a shadowy, cozy rat-trap apartment. with a darkroom that he built into the kitchen that was barely large enough to house a kitchen. As a magazine photographer there, he did his own processing and printing, insisting that the images go in as he framed them, not cropped, which in fact happened. He was so good at what he did that his editors let him write his own ticket.

In 1969, Hamilton spent several months hitchhiking around the country, shooting hundreds of rolls of film (the footage from that trip has the rawhide vibration of Larry Clark), and eventually crashed the Texas Pop Festival, forging a press badge so he could stand in front of the stage and take pictures of BB King, Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter. This led to his first gig, a two-year stint (1969-71) as a staff photographer at Crawdaddy, which was then a newspaper. He had a lot of fun. The rock stars all stayed at the Albert Hotel, across the street from the newspaper offices, or in Chelsea. Hamilton took a million photos in hotel rooms and practically lived backstage at the Fillmore.

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His music world photos are alive and well. And one of the things “Uncropped” takes us back to is the world before publicists, where a photographer like James Hamilton can show you life backstage, or hang out in a hotel room for hours with Duane Allman, capturing his debauched hedonism . or with Alfred Hitchcock, who produced a grin for him unlike any seen in any other Hitchcock picture. He also, not so coincidentally, caught the punk revolution.

Hamilton, as we see, was something of a purist, without being obnoxious about it. In his heyday he was very handsome, like a disheveled Tim Robbins with an intimate grin, and it was said that everyone at The Voice had a crush on him. Combine that with talent, and that’s the kind of look you can’t buy. Yet Hamilton, by keeping himself at arm’s length, was too hip to have one player. He traveled light, with a small camera and a single camera flash on top, and he lived every day for his photos and was not concerned about power. (You have to do some of that to become famous.)

When Hamilton was a child, his aunt took him to see “Psycho” the day it opened, and his mother insisted he stay home from school to watch “Citizen Kane” on TV. He was immersed in films and his photography was as influenced by the films as it was by other photographers. That’s part of what made him the supreme chronicler of the New York that everyone now says they miss: the gritty, dirty, dirty New York of the ’70s and ’80s.

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He thrived at The Voice during the time Clay Felker owned it. He also bonded with director George A. Romero, becoming the staff photographer for Romero’s “Knightriders” (and then “Creepshow,” where he became buddies with Hal Holbrook; the two would sneak away to fly ultralight gliders over Pittsburgh) . He then returned to The Voice, where he and Joe Conason sneaked into a Beijing morgue in 1989 and took photos of the corpses of protesters killed by the Chinese government after Tiananmen Square. This was hair-raising, death-defying stuff.

The hits kept coming. For New York magazine, he shot Robert Altman and Rudolph Guiliani (who reminded him of Boo Radley) and David Dinkins (his portrayal of Dinkins was said to be so sympathetic that it might have won Dinkins the mayoral election). He shot the “preppie killer” Robert Chambers, his camera lens staring into Chambers’ psycho-soul, and was sent by London’s Sunday Times Magazine to cover the Ethiopian War. He spent months there, driving gasoline trucks along roads littered with landmines, and at one point was chased by MiGs firing missiles.

The James Hamilton we meet in ‘Uncropped’ is a fearless man of charming modesty: an artist-journalist who takes his work much more seriously than he does. He and Katherine Dobie have a beautiful home in the Hamptons, and he ended his active career after being hit by a car in Brooklyn Heights, leaving him with a leg injury that required four surgeries. But he already owns his own photos (there are some to put away of contact sheets), and he has put a fraction of it into books. “Uncropped” is the documentary tribute it deserves, although there’s a reason I came away from the film thinking it deserves even more. The film gets you so hooked on Hamilton’s work that you want to share it with the world.

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