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‘Uncropped’ Review: An Enticing Portrait of James Hamilton Makes You Wonder: Is He the Greatest New York Photographer Ever?

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Any photographer who shoots what’s happening in the gleaming, raw, people-packed carnival of New York City — the stores and walls and towers and alleyways, the celebrities, the endless cross-section of humanity — already has an artistic leg up. But the other leg is what he or she does with it. Weegee shot 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 caught the hurly-burly of the everyday. But as you watch “Uncropped,” an addictive look at the life and work of the magazine and newspaper photographer James Hamilton, you may think: He’s the greatest New York photographer of them all.

Hamilton’s black-and-white images — in the documentary, we see hundreds of them — have a burnished tactility, and a psychology so effortless that every one of them tells a story. The photographs are gallery beautiful, but they’re also a form of New Journalism. He, too, showed us freaks, and made his shots of the famous into encounters, and captured what his life partner, the writer Kathy Dobie, calls “the choreography of street life.”

That’s a great phrase, because it suggests an order, a kind of orchestration — but, of course, no one is choreographing street life. The “choreography,” such as it is, happens organically, unconsciously. It’s human society organizing itself along the sidewalks of the urban jungle, and Hamilton’s images find that invisible order inside the disorder. Sylvia Plachy, his fellow staff photographer at the Village Voice in the ’70s and ’80s, calls Hamilton a “classicist,” and he fully cops to being obsessed with composition, with lighting that echoes sources as stylized as the film noirs he grew up on. Yet there’s never anything stagy in Hamilton’s photographs. They’re miracles of spontaneous classicism, as if he’d plucked a moment out of the air and made it timeless. His ability to construct composition around an existential situation is a form of artistic voodoo.

What I’m saying, really, is that James Hamilton is a photographer who could and should have been far more famous — a household name, like Weegee or Arbus or Annie Liebovitz. Yet part of the fascination of “Uncropped,” as directed and edited by D.W. Young, is that it shows you that Hamilton didn’t run his career that way. He was highly successful, doing staff stints at Harper’s Bazaar and the Voice (back when the Voice was the closest thing the city had to a journalistic heartbeat), shooting covers for New York magazine and chronicling the glitz party scene, which he portrayed with a kind of impish unmasking. At the Voice, he shot stories like one in which he and the reporter Michael Daly embedded themselves for days in a Coney Island street gang called the Homicides (who lived up to their name). When it came to taking risks, there was nothing James Hamilton couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t do.

Yet Hamilton, born in 1946, is that rare thing, a lifelong bohemian. In the documentary, we see him wandering, today, through Washington Square Park, always with his camera. He’s tall, with a shock of white hair, and a voice of surprising velvet gentleness. He talks about how much he misses the analog days, when you had to go into the darkroom to discover what you had shot. In the summer of ’66, Hamilton and two buddies moved into a small apartment on University Place (the rent was $109), and it’s one he still occupies — a shadowy, cozy-in-a-beatnik-rat-trap-way flat with a darkroom he built into the kitchen that was barely big enough to house a kitchen. As a magazine photographer, he did his own processing and printing there, insisting the images go in as he’d framed them, uncropped, which is basically what 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 across the country, shooting hundreds of rolls of film (the shots from that trip have a Larry Clark rawhide vibrance), and he wound up crashing the Texas Pop Festival, forging a press badge so that he could stand in front of the stage and shoot pictures of B.B. King, Janis Joplin, and Johnny Winter. This led to his first gig, a two-year stint (1969-71) as the staff photographer at Crawdaddy, which was then a newspaper. He had a blast. The rock stars all stayed at the Albert Hotel, across the street from the newspaper’s office, or at the Chelsea. Hamilton took a million photographs in hotel rooms, and he practically lived backstage at the Fillmore.

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

Hamilton, as we see, was something of a purist, without being obnoxious about it. In his heyday, he was very good-looking, like a tousle-haired Tim Robbins with a private smirk, and it was said that everyone at the Voice had a crush on him. Combine that with talent, and that’s the kind of aura you can’t buy. Yet Hamilton, by keeping himself at a remove, was too hip to be a player. He traveled light, with a small camera and a single-camera-top flash, and he lived, every day, for his photographs, and didn’t cozy up to power. (You have to do some of that to become famous.)

When Hamilton was a kid, 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 movies, and his photography was as influenced by the movies as it was by other photographers. That’s part of what made him the supreme chronicler of the New York everyone now says they miss: the gritty dirty sleazy New York of the ’70s and ’80s.

He thrived at the Voice during the era Clay Felker owned it. He also bonded with director George A. Romero and became the on-set photographer for Romero’s “Knightriders” (and then “Creepshow,” where he got to be pals with Hal Holbrook; the two would sneak off to fly ultralight gliders over Pittsburgh). Then he went back to the Voice, where in 1989 he and Joe Conason snuck into a morgue in Beijing and took pictures of the corpses of protesters who’d been killed by the Chinese government after Tiananmen Square. This was hair-raising, life-risking 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 (it was said that his portrait of Dinkins was so sympathetic that it may have won Dinkins the mayoral election). He shot the “preppie killer” Robert Chambers, his camera lens staring into Chambers’ psycho soul, and he was sent to cover the Ethiopian war by the London Sunday Times Magazine. He spent months over there, driving in petrol trucks through roads dotted with landmines, and at one point was chased by Migs firing rockets.

The James Hamilton we meet in “Uncropped” is a fearless man of charming modesty: an artist-journalist who takes his work far more seriously than he does himself. He and Kathy Dobie have a lovely home in the Hamptons, and he brought his active career to a close after he was hit by a car in Brooklyn Heights, causing a leg injury that required four surgeries. But he owns all his own photographs (there are mountains of contact sheets), and he has put a fraction of them out in books. “Uncropped” is the documentary tribute he deserves, though there’s a reason I came out of the film thinking he deserves even more. “Uncropped” gets you so hooked on James Hamilton’s photographs it makes you want to share them with the world.