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James Hamilton: primitive cool

1 JH-lead

Patti Smith’s journalistic partner-in-crime – the legendary but low-key image-maker James Hamilton – captured the beating heart of the Big Apple for 40 years

Taken from the November 2010 issue of Dazed:

Nico standing straight and serious by the East River. George Coleman attracting the bemusement of passers-by as he plays the saxophone while walking to Fat Tuesday. Diana Ross strutting barefoot in a white evening dress after a show. These are revealing, emotional images by James Hamilton, who for 40 years used his camera as his diary and New York as his playground, photographing a whole book’s worth of the 20th century’s greats for the Village Voice, Crawdaddy! and The New York ObserverPatti Smith, Lou Reed and John Cale, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Dolly Parton – but there never has been a book (unless you count an obscure photobook of pinball machines), or an exhibition. Now Thurston Moore’s new publishing imprint Ecstatic Peace Library are excitedly launching with Hamilton’s first monograph, uncovering a gold mine of rarely seen and unpublished black-and-white photographs that veer from mischievous to darkly thoughtful. 

While he grew up 50 miles away in Connecticut, it was in New York that Hamilton felt at home. When he was a child, his grandmother (who had been married three times and by this point was living with her Mexican lover) used to take him to Max’s Kansas City where the Warhol gang hung out in the 60s. His father was a professional jazz player, “but I didn’t have piano lessons like other kids. I was always painting and drawing. I think I knew at 11 years old that I was going to go to art school and be an artist. I even knew then that I was going to go to Pratt, an art institute in New York.” 

In the summer of '66, after his second year of college, he spent the holidays there and never went back. “Believe it or not, it’s the apartment that I’m still in!” he laughs over the phone; there, he has printed almost every photograph he’s ever taken in his own darkroom. Aged 20, Hamilton bluffed his way into a job as assistant to an Italian fashion photographer and Harper’s Bazaar regular, and in his spare time began using his new Nikon (his first camera) on the streets of New York, documenting what he saw around him. “I didn’t intend to be a photographer, but I fell into it that summer for several reasons. The photo image-making process (including the darkroom) seemed to come more naturally to me than painting. I fell in love with street photography because it satisfied my curiosity about the city and led to lots of adventures.”

In '69 he had been hitchhiking all over the country, when he and his girlfriend passed through Texas and saw that the International Pop Festival was boasting a line-up of BB King, Canned Heat and Janis Joplin. He immediately forged a press pass. Back home, he showed his pictures to a new music paper called Crawdaddy!, hoping to get them published. Seeing the potential in this young upstart, they hired him on the spot as staff photographer. “A few years later there was this paper called The Herald starting up,” says Hamilton. “There was a famous graphic designer called Massimo Vignelli, who designed the New York subway map. The first two people that he hired for this paper were the Art Director, George Delmerico, and me, based on stuff that he’d seen in Crawdaddy!. Patti Smith was writing for them as a rock journalist, and we would go on jobs together and interview people. There’s a picture in the book of the time that we went to interview Rod Stewart and the Faces together, and I took pictures of her with him because she was crazy about Rod Stewart at the time!” Patti is pictured chewing on her finger and looking over coquettishly in the direction of Rod’s mullet as he sits indoors, sunglasses on.

Staff photographer jobs at Harper’s Bazaar and the Village Voice followed, where he stayed for 20 years and took the majority of the photos that appear in You Should Have Heard Just What I Seen. “James Hamilton shot Sonic Youth circa 1988, right before the release of Daydream Nation,” recalls Thurston Moore. “I remember a vibe of importance placed in being shot for the holy tome of the Village Voice and feeling like it was to be scoffed at, like, who needs it? As if it was a localised corporate rag, and hardly as cool as our world of fanzinedom such as Forced Exposure. I had purchased a truckers’ cap that said Party Till You Puke on it and wore that with some hideously ridiculous sunglasses as a ‘fuck off ’ to the session. James was entirely professional in his lazy, drifter way and was not impressed with my stab at insolence. At one point he requested, ‘Why don’t you lose the hat?’ and I realised this fellow had seen too many radical whatsits in NYC for me to have any punk effect on him.”

“I realised this fellow had seen too many radical whatsits in NYC for me to have any punk effect on him” – Thurston Moore

It wasn’t until 2009 that Hamilton and Moore were in touch again. Eva Prinz, Editor at Abrams Books and Moore’s partner on Ecstatic Peace Library, reintroduced them, and Moore recognised Hamilton as the Village Voice photographer from 20 years ago. They immediately bonded over all things NYC and a love of jazz, and the idea germinated in the minds of Prinz and Moore to bring Hamilton’s work to greater attention. “James lays low, and such is the attraction,” offers Moore.

One of Hamilton’s favoured images is a close-up of Jerry Lee Lewis with an evil glint in his eye. “I had always been a fan of Jerry, and went backstage to spend some time with him in the dressing room. He was walking around shirtless and completely drunk, which wasn’t apparent when he was performing at all. He was a wild man in a lot of ways. I was loading my camera and all of a sudden I saw something go past my ear. It was a knife going into the wall that he had just thrown. Then he laughed uproariously. He was the kind of drunk that liked to do things for a reaction, so I reacted, and the picture in the book is kind of telling.”

Having moved over to the Village Voice from The Herald, George Delmerico wanted to hire Hamilton because “I wanted to work with people who weren’t merely looking for subject matter but were interested in art, and that’s what linked me with James. We would get feedback that he was enormously influential from other photographers all the time, so we knew they were paying attention. I think it was a humanistic quality in his work, and that’s exactly what Karen Durbin (editor of the Village Voice) thought when she first looked at his pictures of homeless people who lived on the Bowery, locally known as ‘Bowery bums’. James took these pictures that would break your heart.” Liza Minelli even kept one of his pictures of her inside a cupboard in her apartment. 

Delmerico and Hamilton would test each other constantly, with Hamilton showing his colleague 40 contact sheets of what would be essentially the same photograph of a person’s face, asking him to mark the ones he thought to be the most revealing – meaning the portraits were veering in more of an art direction. “People would look at James’s pictures and freak out, like, all the time. James was so serious about prints he would only print once the contact had been chosen from the contact sheet, then he would spend hours trying to get a perfect print even though it was for a crummy newspaper.”

“James was so serious about prints he would only print once the contact had been chosen from the contact sheet, then he would spend hours trying to get a perfect print even though it was for a crummy newspaper” – George Delmerico

It wasn’t just musicians he was photographing and printing so meticulously – there were people of all creative and political inclinations, and in '77 Village Voice ran Hamilton’s picture of the fighter Ken Norton in his jock strap right next to a full-page ad for Macy’s. “It caused a lot of trouble,” says Delmerico, “but in the end we pacified Macy’s, freedom of the press and all that, and James got a great picture.” They failed, however, to pacify Muhammed Ali, who later yelled at Norton before a fight: “You are a disgrace to athletics. You are a disgrace to your race. You are a disgrace to your country, posing for a picture with your balls hanging out.”

While at the Voice, Hamilton suggested a story on Dawn of The Dead director, George Romero, since film was his other big passion. “We became really good friends and he asked me if I wanted to do stills on his film. Eventually, I got into the Cinematographers’ Union, so that became my favourite freelance job.” He has done stills for or played small cameo roles in each of Wes Anderson’s films since The Royal Tenenbaums, and Francis Ford Coppola and Milos Forman have also invited him on set. While shooting stills for The Squid And The Whale, Hamilton appeared on screen briefly as Laura Linney’s secret lover.

But a fledgling acting career was put to rest by his dream job: The New York Observer told him he could run two large pictures per week, on pages two and four of the paper, and they could be of anything he wanted. “I could make a game of it… I somehow would make the picture on page two relate to the one on page four, because I needed some kind of limitation in my own mind. It was like I was doing a column or comic-strip, I had to come up with something new every week. There was so much work coming at me all the time that I really didn’t have a chance to think of doing any books or shows or anything…” And that’s the interesting thing about James Hamilton. He is low-key, he has never done an interview before, and his dedication to each of his newspaper jobs has meant that he really hasn’t been recognised as more than a newspaper photographer – when in fact he’s an artist, searching for something “revealing” in each of his subjects – making sure to print every picture himself to gain more control over the process. At the Voice, George Romero agreed not to crop Hamilton’s photographs, so complete was his vision. 

Then after 15 enviable years at The Observer, he was forced to stop working. “18 months ago I got run over by a car. Well, actually by an SUV. I was on the job and I was crossing the street and got knocked down by the driver’s front wheel on my leg. So I haven’t been able to work properly since then. I’m finally with a cane, which I started with in May. The problem was that I lost that job.” The only good that can really be said to have come from this traumatic experience was the freeing up of some time to go back through all of his old pictures. “I’m very fortunate to have a friend, Eva Prinz, who is the Editor of Abrams. She asked me if I’d ever done a book and I said, “No,” and she said, “Well, we have to!” but it never really happened at Abrams. Then she and Thurston hooked up to do the Ecstatic Peace Library.” Presented chronologically as Hamilton lives through various eras of music – rock’n’roll, punk, hip hop – You Should Have Heard Just What I Seen shows that his art has remained constant, truly creative, and free from preconceived ideas about what music photography can or should be.

“Apart from making a living, I don’t even think I had set out to ‘achieve’ anything really,” Hamilton, now 63, deliberates. “But my central concern was to make a history – a very personal one – but still a history of New York City and anywhere I wandered. It was therefore always important that I think of these images as mine– I insisted on doing all my own processing, owning the negatives and maintaining maximum control of the presentation (and amazingly, for the most part, got away with it). The main thing that I would offer the publications, I thought, was a kind of ‘lucidity’. My point of view was, and was always permitted to be, my own.”