In her 1977 essay collection On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that the abundance of photographic images in our culture had begun to engender “a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world.” Photography promises safe access to worlds — certainly the glamorous, dangerous, and debauched ones — we may never directly engage with. Access stands out as the strength of D.W. Young’s newest documentary, Uncropped, which features the intrepid, American photographer James Hamilton as its subject. A self-described “arranger of chaos,” Hamilton boasts an impressive CV and a plethora of friends. Through Hamilton’s works, Young treats the viewer to a vivid parade of places and faces, capturing the breadth of a dynamic oeuvre. Through Hamilton’s connections, the director finds license to expand Uncropped’s focus, broadening its concerns to highlight not simply a remarkable man, but a remarkable era of artistic expression that has since faded away.
Hamilton’s photography and professional journey provide the documentary’s chronological structure. His pictures enlivened the pages of numerous publications, namely Crawdaddy! magazine (1969-71), The Herald newspaper (1971), Harper’s Bazaar (1971-73), the Village Voice (1974-93), and the New York Observer (1993-2008) — all outlets where he served as a staff photographer. Whether Hamilton was photographing rock music legends, models at Halston fashion shows, mayoral candidates, or massacred students from the Tiananmen Square protests, his penchant for balancing formality and pathos was his works’ unifying principle. According to Uncropped’s range of guests, it’s what established him as one of our most influential observers of culture. They laud his easygoing nature, his eye, and his empathy in testimonials littered throughout, their appraisals of his abilities never academic, instead breezily casual in the way conversations at a 30-year high school reunion might be. A mystique forms around Hamilton’s work due to how reverently his companions and former colleagues speak of it. The onus is on the viewer to examine the photographic montage — while Kathy Dobie commends Hamilton’s appreciation for “the choreography of urban life” or David Lee admires Hamilton’s “almost clinical, but… not detached” approach to flash and framing — and conclude for themselves to what degree they concur. This contemplative, curatorial mood dimensionalizes Uncropped, rescuing it from purely being a neat, if inoffensive, march through Hamilton’s greatest hits.
The documentary bears an unmistakably nostalgic mood as well. As almost everyone involved, Hamilton included, looks back in time, a fixation on the differences between the past and the present reveals itself. Back then, Hamilton claims, people avoided the camera, which made the candids he caught all the more amusing. He suggests that nowadays, in our content-heavy era of surfaces and styles, people who spy a camera are more likely to pose. Back then, Richard Goldstein explains, from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, aesthetic and journalistic integrity were locked in an intense, productive dialectic because the writers and artists ran the show. Nowadays, it’s the C-suite and venture capital philistines who call the shots while the Arts sections shrink more and more. New York City used to be a hub of dynamic “unmanageability”; now, those avant-garde and bohemian energies have been irrevocably commodified. Workplaces and meeting spaces like the Village Voice, says Sylvia Plachy, once thrummed with the spirit of cross-pollination. She then laments the advent of the computer and the ensuing digital age, how it made fewer things feel personal and hands-on, how we’ve collectively grown more siloed and self-absorbed, “sanitized, cleaned, and dead.” Essential elements of our artistic and cultural heritage have been lost, Uncropped seems to argue, elements that the work of James Hamilton — known for the rough, raw textures the use of contrast lent to his photos — in a sense enshrines. The film never gets lofty in making the case for Hamilton’s cultural significance — he is not feted or deified. Uncropped, like its subject, retains an accessible humility that makes for unpretentious viewing. Though the pictures may depict bygone times, Young chooses to elevate their fascinating eccentricity rather than drown them in sentimentality.
It’s a bit unfortunate, then, that, for a documentary brimming with such rich material, it never graduates to the caliber of essential viewing. To return to Sontag, she believed a consequence of photographs granting us constant, titillating access to seemingly everything was a flattening of “the meaning of all events.” Significances fail to be distinguished. Uncropped says and shows a lot, but in the dazzling churn of its images and anecdotes, we rarely sit with the weight of an insight before the next sequence usurps its place. The film’s briskness is a double-edged sword, the source of its informal pleasantness as well as its lack of satisfying substantiality. Partially this is the fault of the broad focus, this “uncropped” portrait of a man and several eras, scenes, and institutions aiming for totality while rarely digging below the surface level. Then there is the rigidly linear, conveyor belt-style storytelling, which feels curiously misaligned with the ethos so many of the guests espouse: a countercultural sense of life that is unruly and joyfully bizarre. Instead, what’s notable is Uncropped’s conventionality, which provides guardrails rather than a compelling framework for the storytelling. An anesthetizing sameness sets in, muting the film’s best qualities if never spoiling them. Uncropped is an amusing love letter to a relatively unheralded creative and the worlds where he made his name, but a different lens may very well have resulted in a better, greater film.
Published as part of DOCNYC 2023 — Dispatch 2.