James Hamilton (photographer)

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James Hamilton is an American photographer, best known for his documentation of the New York City film, art and music scene of the 1970s and 1980s.


James Hamilton’s career began as a painting student at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, NY, where he studied from fall, 1964 to summer, 1966. He swiftly changed gears after securing a summer job at the studio of fashion photographer Alberto Rizzo. It was while employed there that Hamilton learned to use a darkroom and purchased his first camera, a Nikon Rangefinder, which he traded with Rizzo for a Nikon F. His passion for photography was ignited by shooting in the street, as opposed to the confines of the studio. By summer’s end James had decided not to finish his last two years at the school, but to instead remain at the studio with Rizzo.

In 1969 Hamilton began hitch-hiking around the US, spending five months on the road capturing images wherever he landed. While traveling through Texas, the young photographer found out about a music festival taking place in a nearby town. He created fake press passes and spent three days shooting musicians as they performed at the Texas International Pop Festival. Upon his return to New York City he built a darkroom in his apartment, processed the film, and began printing. He took the images from the festival to the newly launched music magazine, Crawdaddy! and was hired on the spot as their staff photographer. It was then that Hamilton began to capture the steady stream of bands that came through the city, spending weekends shooting at the Fillmore East and, according to James,”…covering the music life of NYC.” He continues, “I never set out to photograph celebrities, and never really thought of myself as a ‘portrait photographer’…. I had always carried my camera wherever I went, using it to create a sort of personal history and a way of finding adventure.” Thus began a decades long career that would find James photographing the NYC music scene during some of its most fervent and fertile years, capturing the likes of Nico, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Beastie Boys, and James Brown.

Hamilton served as staff photographer for numerous publications, including Crawdaddy! (’69-’71), The Herald (’71), Harper’s Bazaar (’71-’75), the Village Voice(’74-’93), and the New York Observer (’93-’09) while contributing to many iconic magazines including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and New York.

War Photography[edit]

During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Hamilton photographed war and civil unrest in areas including El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti and Grenada. He was situated in the Philippines during the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos, and in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square massacre (sneaking photos past authorities that became some of the few to appear in US newspapers).

Film Photography[edit]

In 1980, Hamilton began also shooting stills for films. After meeting George A. Romero, Hamilton was enlisted to capture stills for his next two movies, Knightriders and Creepshow, following with work for Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Outsiders. He went on to shoot extensively with Wes Anderson, photographing the sets of The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited, as well as on the set of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale.

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