Reviewed by: Sergiu Inizian

"Young takes his time, exploring the history of relevant publications and Hamilton's role in their growth." | Photo: Courtesy of DOC NYC

This elegant exploration of journalism and vision slowly reveals New York and its cultural influence through the eyes of one of its most prolific photographers. As his black-and-white stills are reevaluated in a new historical context, James Hamilton's thoughts guide the viewer through five decades of political change. His aesthetic is distinct, captivating and still relevant, displaying an attitude that deeply cares about how his subjects look and feel in front of his camera.

Through a massive collage of images, director DW Young digs into a collection which bore witness to different waves of counterculture, from hippies to punks and marginalized gangs. Hamilton's shots are formal but never boring. He stresses the importance of composition in his work. He doesn't judge and strives to take his pictures truthfully. The subject is front and centre, similar to how he stands as the main subject of the documentary. From this position, he is a humble raconteur of his larger-than-life career, reliving assignments from affluent parties, movie sets and even conflict zones.

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Debuting as a concert photographer, his work caught the attention of the larger cultural scene of New York. His peers from Harper’s Bazaar and other papers at which he perfected his craft describe him as reserved and observant. Borrowing from his attitude and visual style, Young takes his time, exploring the history of relevant publications and Hamilton's role in their growth. The two photographic arts often harmonise and converse in an engaging meta-exercise about the complex process of documenting everyday moments.

Hamilton's story is also inseparable from a larger narrative about the evolution of journalism. He recalls that even as he was minding his work and mostly ignoring office politics, he could feel a brewing power shift. The growth of advertisers and wealthy elites within mass media is discussed in detail with writers who criticise the rise of tabloids built on the back of cultural staples like The New York Observer and The Village Voice. In contrast, Hamilton's portraiture withstands the test of time and still represents the stories of hard-working journalists who unveiled New York's oddity to itself.

Young portrays a compelling picture of the decline of print press but introduces details which feel difficult to absorb for viewers who are not directly connected to New York-based journalism. However, the pace is picked up by a continuous series of impressive images, which depict actors and cultural icons that have defined America for decades. Being a cinephile, Hamilton feels right at home as a film set photographer, collaborating with famous directors like George A. Romero and Wes Anderson. Behind the scenes, the New Yorker directs still frames, preserving real moments that are infused with the essence of cinematic fiction.

Hamilton's vast body of work is without a doubt stunning. But, his modesty is really what strikes the eye. He allows his subjects and peers to shine, sometimes playing the surrogate interviewer. As unassuming as the jazz music accompanying the visuals, he patiently yet actively documents his storied photography. His demeanour makes his renowned portfolio appealing and is the quiet driving force behind an engaging cinematic ode that celebrates his visual intuition.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2023
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James Hamilton's compelling photographic journey through five decades of New York's cultural evolution.


DOC NYC 2023

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