DOC NYC 2023 Review: “Uncropped” Leaves Nothing Out of the Frame in a Captivating Portrait of Photographer James Hamilton

One can’t help but be intrigued by an introductory scene in “Uncropped” with the photographer James Hamilton wandering around Washington Square Park in New York, not far from where he’s kept an apartment since the summer of 1966. Although the scenery itself hasn’t changed over the years, there’s a fresh set of visitors to take pictures of every day and Hamilton, led by his curiosity and instinct, doesn’t stop moving around, stretching his arm into air to take pictures without even bothering to look through the viewfinder before snapping the photo. (Later on, when Hamilton can be seen out on a weekend with his family at the beach in East Hampton, with his arm once again raised to the sky with a camera in hand, waiting for the tide to come in to catch the moment the waves break, even if it means a mouth full of water for himself, it is understood that he simply knows what he’s doing.)

You can marvel at Hamilton’s technique, but as D.W. Young’s enchanting film unfolds, the scene ends up revealing how one could properly capture a wily subject, who in spite of a lifelong love of movies, has largely been content to remain behind the camera rather than in front of it. Keeping it casual as Hamilton himself would, the film may fit the definition of a biography as it follows Hamilton through the years — first scoring a press pass to a Texas music festival where he may have made up the fact he was shooting for a magazine to get in, but his snapshots of BB King and others would end up getting professionally published, to where he really made his bones at New York alternative weeklies from the ‘70s through the early 2000s — but it becomes as much a stealth history of the publications he worked for such as the Village Voice and the New York Observer during their most vibrant eras. Hamilton, was of course, no small part of that, but Young honors the photographer’s desire to be part of something bigger than himself when giving generous amounts of attention to the other photographers at the Voice who were finding their footing such as David Lee, who recalls evading feces being thrown his way at a GG Allin concert, and Sylvia Plachy, who eventually secured the column space to publish a photo of whatever she wanted on a weekly basis.

These might seem like digressions in a portrait of someone else, but when Hamilton is routinely complimented by peers for his ability to get a complete picture, “Uncropped” beautifully reflects both Hamilton’s own individual spirit and that of the times he came up in that made such a singular career possible, with Young opting to have Hamilton engage with friends and colleagues such as Thurston Moore and Mark Jacobson as much as in traditional sit-downs where memories and observations flow freely. As Hamilton himself says at one point, he can look back at contact sheets for a diary and much of his experience can be deducted from the extraordinary photographs he’s taken, but his coverage that grew from shooting high society soirees for Harper’s Bazaar to eventually being the lone Western photojournalist to relay the true carnage during the student protests in Tiananmen Square mirrors a more general arc of a once-thriving media ecosystem where collectives built brands rather than felt beholden to them and was driven less to give audiences what they wanted than what they didn’t yet know they did.

“Uncropped” is continually surprising, dropping in bits and pieces of Hamilton’s remarkable life as they might come up in spontaneous conversation, whether it was joining Bill Paxton for his early morning rounds delivering newspapers to sustain himself in the days before establishing himself as an actor or hanging out at home with Craig Clairborne to take pictures of all the chefs who came to visit him. With the photographer describing how he fashioned such a rewarding way to live in relation to his professional pursuit, gaining full control over his photographs when he insisted on processing and printing them himself and taking gigs only where he knew he’d have freedom, the film finds itself liberated from traditional form when the extraordinary all feels like happenstance and by the time Hamilton retreats to his dark room to see what’s developed from his day at the park, an entire life has come into focus brilliantly.

“Uncropped” will be available to watch online from November 12th through 26th via the DOC NYC streaming platform.

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