James Hamilton has lived an envious life. As staff photographer at Crawdaddy, The New York Herald, Harper’s Bazaar, The Village Voice, and The New York Observer, Hamilton chronicled the faces of New York culture, from Meryl Streep and Liza Minnelli to Jean-Luc Godard and Wes Anderson. One balmy night in 1980, I witnessed Hamilton shooting the iconic photo of Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York,” standing under the Statue of Liberty.
During the pandemic Hamilton began posting his gorgeous black-and-white photographs on his Facebook page on the celebrity’s birthday. He’s now in the habit. “Every day, it seems there’s someone I’ve photographed,” he said. And he owns his own photos. After he saw the art department at Harper’s Bazaar throwing out negatives, he possessively held his work close. He would happily stay up late at night inhaling photo-chemicals in his University Place apartment darkroom, listening to the jazz from Bradley’s wafting up through the floor.
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Now Hamilton is the subject of a new documentary from director D.W. Young and executive producer Wes Anderson, “Uncropped” (DOC NYC, November 11), which tracks his life and career from his early years at Pratt, an apprenticeship with one photographer who taught him how to shoot, and another who taught him the art of black-and-white printing, through the Crawdaddy music years and his two decades on staff at The Village Voice (1974-1993). “I did everything,” he said. “I did restaurant reviews, music and film stuff, and features. There’d be at least four or five pictures a week.”
At Bazaar, Hamilton was also able to grab party shots of stars like Cary Grant on the fly with his nimble Nikon-F, equipped with a flash. Even the Russell shot at Liberty Island was a flash photo — with the shutter open.
An ardent cinephile, Hamilton chased after his favorite auteurs even when he didn’t have an assignment, including some grinning snapshots of Alfred Hitchcock around the 1972 release of “Frenzy” which were never published. Hamilton made people feel comfortable by engaging them in conversation, which is why so many of his portraits don’t look posed. He showed up at Hitchcock’s hotel room at the St. Regis, where the two men sipped tea served by Alma Hitchcock.
“I would talk more than I would shoot,” Hamilton said. “That’s what I had to do. The time would be shorter as the years went on, because the junkets came in and people would be moved from hotel room to hotel room. And so it was hard to engage, but I had to do it quickly. I’d learned how to do that. But I love these people. Movie directors were my heroes growing up. People who control their work and their creations.”
At Harper’s Bazaar, Hamilton had the luxury of hanging out for days with people like “Cabaret” star Liza Minnelli and her godmother Kay Thompson; he caught them as they were interviewed by The New York Post columnist Earl Wilson. His easy rapport with directors yielded several set visits (he wound up on-screen in Milos Forman’s “Taking Off”) and gigs as unit photographer for George Romero (“Knightriders,” “Creepshow”) and Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” and “Darjeeling Limited”). As far as Hamilton was concerned, he was “a cheap date,” because he never brought an assistant with him on location to Naples for “A Life Aquatic.” “It can be a terrible job unless you treat it the way I treated it,” he said, “which is like a documentary. I treated it as though I was documenting the making of a movie, because mostly what they want are replicas of shots that are in the films.”
Bonding with his subjects on three occasions yielded lasting personal relationships, including sex journalist Shere Hite (Hamilton turns up in IFC Films’ “The Disappearance of Shere Hite”), the recently departed Brazilian chanteuse Astrid Gilberto, and New Yorker writer Veronica Geng. “There was a mutual attraction,” said Hamilton. “Yeah.” His girlfriend of 33 years, TV writer Kathy Dobie, he met on assignment for a Voice story about Williamsburg prostitutes. She lives in Brooklyn, he still has his apartment on University Place, and they share a house in East Hampton.
On assignment from The Voice, Hamilton grabbed an early portrait of Meryl Streep, before “The Deer Hunter” opened, up at Lincoln Center. “We just hung out and took a nice long walk and had ice cream cones and chatted.”
Another way that Hamilton got to meet people was his mother, who worked as a production coordinator at “Midday Live.” “She would call me up and say, ‘get up here, John Huston is going to be here.’ That’s how I would add to my collections.”
Hamilton shot many pictures at Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival, including one with Jean-Luc Godard, who is actually smiling. He has another photo of Godard and Akira Kurosawa together. “They’ve never met,” he said. “They come to a hotel room to me. So they show up with the shades and they’re identically dressed. ‘And you guys, please stand over by the window.’ And they adopted the same pose.”
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