Shooting for the stars

Person steering a guitar boatLA-based photographer Hugh Hamilton is fast establishing himself as one of the world’s preeminent portrait photographers. Fresh from a shoot at the Playboy Mansion, he spoke to Chrissa Favaloro in Sydney.

“I grew up on the northern beaches, which was full of professional surfers: Tom Carroll, Nick Carroll. I wasn’t a very good surfer so to hang around them I picked up my camera.”

That was more than 30 years ago, and Hugh Hamilton, now 52, has since relocated to LA and focussed his lens on the likes of Steve Martin, Tommy Lee, Gabriel Byrne and Hugh Hefner.

Recently, his image of Josh Pyke in a guitar boat came third in the music advertising category of the International Photography Awards, where he also received an honourable mention in the personalities category alongside renowned portrait photographers Nadav Kander and Kwaku Alston.

Sitting in a bustling Ultimo cafe dressed in a crumpled linen shirt, Hamilton leans back and reflects on his early days at UTS as a communications student. “I came to UTS (then called the NSW Institute of Technology) wanting to be a journalist and then fell in love with film. I am still profoundly influenced by the films I saw here.”

During his university years, he also put his talent to use on the student paper, NEWSWIT, as the lead photographer for two years. Still hooked on film though, Hamilton left UTS to try his luck in the world of cinema in the early 80’s.

“I’ve had a very chequered career… I soon realised it takes an arm and a leg to make a film but it only takes a camera to take a great picture.” It was his Redfern flatmate – a professional photographer – who finally pointed him in the right direction.

“He said, ‘You don’t want to be a filmmaker, you want to be a photographer. Take this job for a year or two [in a photography studio in Edgecliff, Sydney]: the pay’s bad but you’ll have access to all the cameras and film in the world and you’ll wind up knowing what you’re doing.’ He was right.”

As one of three assistants, Hamilton’s time was divided between six professional photographers working in areas as diverse as advertising, fashion, catalogue and architectural photography. After branching out on his own, Hamilton developed a reputation as a strong photographer of advertising – Qantas, Wonderbra, Telstra, Cointreau, Sydney Dance Company – and editorial – Black & White, Stiletto, OK!, InStyle, Good Weekend – with a specific talent for portraiture.

The move to the US was instigated by his now-wife Isabel Rosenthal. They met in Sydney in 2002 and were together for close to two years when she fell pregnant. “We had talked about marriage before that but, after she got pregnant, it was like ‘we’re getting married’.” They sorted the immigration paperwork and, in 2005, relocated to Los Angeles. They now have two daughters, Charlotte, four, and Lillia, 14 months.

“The move was traumatic,” says Hamilton. “America is a country of specialisation: in Australia you can be more of a jack of all trades. There are much larger amounts of money at stake in America and, bless their hearts, they want to hire the very best person for the job. Here, they’ll look at what’s happening in New York and say, ‘We want that sort of feel’. While in LA, they just hire that specific photographer from New York.

“You have to treat yourself as your own brand and perfect your elevator speech. The example is: I step into an elevator with Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. He says, ‘What do you do?’ and I’ve got until the next floor to answer that.”

So, what is it that Hugh Hamilton does? “I do very loose, informal, environmental portraiture that engages the subject emotionally.” He looks impressed: “I’ve got better at this.”

Currently, Hamilton is working on a book project with friend and actress Gia Carides (wife of Anthony LaPaglia), with proceeds going towards the Los Angeles charity Children of the Night. “I remembered the Citizen Kane movie.

A journalist spends the narrative trying to find the meaning of Kane’s last word ‘rosebud’, which turns out to be his childhood sled. And I realised that everyone has a rosebud: some meaningless object they’ve carried through their lives that means an awful lot to them and bugger all to anyone else.”

So far he’s shot Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion with a cartoon he drew when we was 14 – “not a Playboy bunny to be seen”; Steve Martin with the first top hat he bought when he was 11 – “he wanted to be a magician”; and Helen Hunt with a cradle made for her as a child by her late Uncle Jimmy. With the working title Rosebud, it’s likely to be released at the end of the year.

While still shooting advertising and editorial work, Hamilton is also donating his services to Jay Nolan Community Services in California. His portraits of individuals with disabilities have been so well received the charity has invited him back to do more work.

“I’ve gone from being this arrogant dickhead in advertising, where you make a lot of money, to rediscovering that photography can be a really worthwhile and beautiful thing to do.”