Pro­file – Hugh Hamil­ton

The Var­ied Ca­reer Of Hugh Hamil­ton

ProPhoto - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Bruce Usher

From fash­ion to film-mak­ing and a lot of points in be­tween – in­clud­ing work­ing in the USA – Syd­ney-based pho­tog­ra­pher Hugh Hamil­ton’s will­ing­ness to re-in­vent him­self has kept him busy and suc­cess­ful.

From fash­ion to film-mak­ing and a lot of points in be­tween – in­clud­ing work­ing in the USA – Syd­ney­based pho­tog­ra­pher Hugh Hamil­ton’s will­ing­ness to re-in­vent him­self has kept him busy and suc­cess­ful.

Art was essen­tially frowned upon when Hugh Hamil­ton went to Syd­ney Gram­mar. Of his gen­er­a­tion – other than Hugh – one boy be­came a mu­si­cian and an­other the head of act­ing at NIDA, but the rest of the class all went into ei­ther medicine or law. In fact, Hugh was also ex­pected to be­come a lawyer. Hugh be­came a pho­tog­ra­pher partly after wind­ing up at the NSW In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (now UTS) where he stud­ied for a de­gree in com­mu­ni­ca­tions. He wanted to write – which he did – and then spend the rest of the time surf­ing at New­port Beach. Not be­ing of the cal­i­bre of Nick and Tom Car­roll, Peter Phelps or any­one else who was a reg­u­lar at the time, Hugh ended up tak­ing pho­to­graphs and started sell­ing them to Tracks, Surf­ing World and John Witzig’s Sean­otes. This led to Hugh be­com­ing the pho­tog­ra­pher for the stu­dent pa­per for two years.

Nick Car­roll re­mem­bers Hugh as “… an in­tel­li­gent, sen­si­tive guy. He owned a Mini Moke and surfed a knee­board. Surf­ing didn’t suck him all the way down the plug­hole – the way it did some of us other New­port kids – and I al­ways thought he’d go off and find some­thing else to do at some point”.

After ac­tu­ally com­plet­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­gree, film-mak­ing caught Hugh’s eye.

“Grad­u­ates ei­ther be­came jour­nal­ists or went into the film in­dus­try,” he re­calls. He spent a cou­ple of years be­ing a gofer, but in 1983 he wound up shar­ing a house with stills pho­tog­ra­pher Geoff McGeachin.

“Mid­nite Spares was one of many taxfriendly 10BA cow­boy pro­duc­tions that was lit­ter­ing the land­scape back then,” says Geoff who was the stills pho­tog­ra­pher on the film. “I was re­cently back from Hong Kong and At­lantic City, New Jersey, while Hugh was fresh out of UTS and a fourth as­sis­tant di­rec­tor. At that stage Hugh was al­ready con­sid­er­ing pho­tog­ra­phy as a ca­reer and we bonded over ten long weeks of ex­haust­ing dusk-to-dawn shoots fea­tur­ing crazy sprint car rac­ers and way­too-dan­ger­ous car stunts. The sense­less death of fo­cus-puller David Brostoff on the last stunt of the last night of pro­duc­tion

[at Par­ra­matta Speed­way] made me into a safety-Nazi… and the shared dis­be­lief and grief ce­mented my friend­ship with Hugh.”

Geoff helped iron out all Hugh’s tech­ni­cal foibles and also built Hugh a cou­ple of dark­rooms... “I was com­pletely self-taught,” says Hugh, “and a crappy printer”. Then Geoff wound up get­ting a job as the dark­room tech­ni­cian at the Syd­ney Col­lege Of The Arts. One day, Stu­dio Ben Eriks­son – where Geoff had once worked – tele­phoned and said they were look­ing for a pho­tog­ra­pher. Well, to quote Geoff, ex­actly what they said was, “We can’t find any­one who wants to work for the piti­ful wages that we want to pay, but who wants to be a pho­tog­ra­pher. Do you know any­one?” Hugh con­tin­ues the story. “Geoff rang me and said, ‘I don’t think you want to be a film di­rec­tor’ – which was true. Film is be­ing in charge of an army and I’m not cut out to be ei­ther a foot sol­dier or a gen­eral. Geoff said, ‘I think you should do this for a year and they will teach you how to be a pho­tog­ra­pher’.”

Hugh went to see Ben armed with some of his prints. “But Ben didn’t want to see my pic­tures! He said, ‘ You start at eight and fin­ish when we tell you to, and we pay you $180 a week or some­thing. Can you start next week?’”

Into Fash­ion

The sec­ond day that Hugh was at Stu­dio Ben Eriks­son, pho­tog­ra­pher Paul Austin came in after shooting a big ar­chi­tec­tural as­sign­ment.

“The other as­sis­tants gave me all his film to process… the new guy who didn’t know what he was do­ing. So there were ag­i­ta­tion marks and crap all over the film. Paul was re­ally pissed off at the other kids, but said to me ‘It’s not your fault’. Ex­cept eight months later, when it came to print­ing them, he said. ‘ You did it so you print them’.”

It took Hugh two days to get one print right while an­other print took three boxes of pa­per (at 50 sheets to a box). This ex­pe­ri­ence taught Hugh to be­come a re­ally good printer and he worked at Stu­dio Ben Eriks­son for a year be­fore be­ing fired for do­ing too much out­side work, in­clud­ing so­cial pho­tog­ra­phy for Vogue mag­a­zine.

He knew how to make peo­ple look good so he wound up shooting por­traits for the mag­a­zine and has been a free­lancer for it ever since. “Grant Matthews was also at the stu­dio and ev­ery­one wanted to work for him. He was a hot fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher on a roll; there was a pe­riod when Grant worked straight for three-and-a-half months do­ing three jobs a day. The side­ef­fect of work­ing for Grant is that you fall in love with fash­ion. I didn’t have an in­ter­est in fash­ion be­fore, but you get a lit­tle bit be­sot­ted with the girls and the glam­our of it all. So then I wanted to be a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher and I wound up liv­ing in Lon­don in 1990 and do­ing all right.”

How­ever, upon re­turn­ing to Syd­ney, Hugh says he re­alised that ev­ery­one that he had started out with was now do­ing bet­ter than him. He’d hit a cre­ative wall. “I thought, ‘I don’t like this any­more! It’s a tread­mill, and I don’t care about it that much’. I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a pho­tog­ra­pher any­more.”

An­other UTS grad­u­ate that he knew sug­gested that Hugh con­sider ad­ver­tis­ing and rec­om­mended he do a course at the AWARD School, the Aus­tralian Writ­ers And Art Di­rec­tors School.

So Hugh went to AWARD School and there his de­sire to be a pho­tog­ra­pher was rekin­dled.

“I re­alised that I liked work­ing with ideas, pho­tograph­ing them and bring­ing them to life.”

In Ad­ver­tis­ing

Hugh was signed to pho­tog­ra­phers’ agent Katy Young and thus be­gan a long run as an ad­ver­tis­ing pho­tog­ra­pher.

“Katy had us do a spread on gam­bling for Pol mag­a­zine. Jon Bader did a beau­ti­ful still life of a roulette wheel. Some­body did some­thing on horses and I did two flies climb­ing up a wall… as in the say­ing about Aus­tralians bet­ting on any­thing. I’d been sit­ting in my Dar­linghurst apart­ment try­ing to ig­nite my cre­ativ­ity, and my eye fell on a dead moth. You’ve got to shoot

what you can find right in front of you. This led to a se­ries on the dead in­sects that I found in the house. I ac­tu­ally ended up do­ing a show of them and they sold re­ally well. They were shot on a Mamiya 645 with more ex­ten­sion tubes than you can pos­si­bly imag­ine.

“The cre­ative stuff that was re­ally in­ter­est­ing was, strangely enough, for Black+White mag­a­zine, and it was back to the nudes and the girls. It was a great pho­tog­ra­phy fo­rum, and KJ would al­ways chal­lenge us to come back with some­thing amaz­ing.”

‘KJ’ was Karen-Jane Eyre who was the mag­a­zine’s ed­i­tor from 1993 to 2003 and then ed­i­tor-in-chief from 2003 to the end of 2006. She was re­spon­si­ble for com­mis­sion­ing and pro­duc­ing the celebrity shoots.

Hugh com­ments, “They paid bug­ger all, but would let you do what­ever you wanted as long as it was amaz­ing”.

“It’s funny how the pho­tog­ra­phers who shot for Black+White all think they were given to­tal artis­tic free­dom,” com­ments Karen-Jayne, “when, in fact, there were end­less meet­ings and long dis­cus­sions about con­cept, mood, lo­ca­tion, hair and make-up, and so on. And, of course, there were the pre- and post-shoot dis­cus­sions with the celebri­ties, which the pho­tog­ra­phers weren’t aware of, too. But once the pho­tog­ra­phers had proved them­selves, they were given much more cre­ative free­dom.

“Hugh was par­tic­u­larly good at pre­sent­ing his ideas, and they were in­vari­ably orig­i­nal and artis­tic. The fact that he was per­son­able and highly pro­fes­sional didn’t hurt ei­ther, par­tic­u­larly as we were of­ten ask­ing celebri­ties to ‘get their kit off’ in front of some­one they didn’t know! I think Hugh could have been painter or a film­maker. He re­ally does have artis­tic tal­ent. He’s not a copy­ist ei­ther, and that’s the other rea­son we re­ally liked us­ing him for the celebrity shoots. It would have been so easy to turn out end­less Herb Ritts or Bruce We­ber-es­que heroic nudes, par­tic­u­larly for the Olympic books.

“I think the rea­son why Black+White’s Olympic Dream se­ries was so suc­cess­ful was that the shoots were a blend of clas­sic nudes and cut­ting-edge con­tem­po­rary pho­tog­ra­phy and tech­niques, and Hugh’s work def­i­nitely con­trib­uted to that blend.”

Hugh re­calls he had a great time work­ing with Felic­ity Galvez the but­ter­fly swim­mer who wanted to com­pete in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and also syn­chro­nised swim­mer Naomi Young whom he worked with the for the At­lanta Olympics is­sue in 1996.

“The ter­ri­ble thing that dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy did to ad­ver­tis­ing pho­tog­ra­phy,” he states, “was that art di­rec­tors stopped draw­ing and they started pulling stock im­ages from stock li­braries. Be­fore dig­i­tal they would sell the con­cept draw­ing to the client and then you would sit down with the art di­rec­tor and make it bet­ter, and come back with some­thing that took it fur­ther. The prob­lem with pro­duc­ing an ad out of stock art is that it’s this im­agery that the client has seen so, no mat­ter what you do, the client will say, ‘It doesn’t look like what I signed off on’.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing handed an ad for Pen­folds wines. The art di­rec­tor had copied a Na­dav Kan­der shot of a girl kiss­ing her own shoul­der. The art di­rec­tor and my­self took that as a start­ing point. I shot a safety roll and then ten rolls of lips and eyes, all ab­stract and beau­ti­ful.

“It was about ca­ress­ing the juice from the grape. Any of them could have run. The agency’s cre­ative di­rec­tor came in and asked, ‘ What have you got?’ We showed him, but he wanted two more rolls of what the client had signed off on.

“What hap­pens now is that some­one will see some­thing on the Web and copy it.”

Hugh’s ‘gui­tar boat’ pic­ture – ac­tu­ally cre­ated for a Josh Pyke mu­sic video – is a clas­sic ex­am­ple.

“Ev­ery­one thinks it’s fake,” he says, “mainly be­cause I do have a lot of post­pro­duc­tion work in my fo­lio, but it is ac­tu­ally a boat made in the shape of a gui­tar. I shot it with a tilt-shift lens to get a very shal­low depth-of-field. It’s been on two mag­a­zine cov­ers in Europe and is my most ripped-off pic­ture. If I do an im­age search, on­line I’ll find gui­tar teach­ers the world over us­ing it. So I’ll send them an email, ask­ing whether they’d like to pay for us­ing it and the re­ply is usu­ally ‘Sorry, I didn’t know it was yours’.”

Into Clas­sic Cars

Hugh de­cided to re­lo­cate to the USA in 2005. He had mar­ried an Amer­i­can a few years ear­lier and the cou­ple then de­cided they would like to live in the States.

“It was a lot of fun. A big ad­ven­ture,” Hugh re­calls. “But get­ting estab­lished there was re­ally hard be­cause Amer­ica is very spe­cialised. They want you to do just one thing and do it re­ally well. You can look at any num­ber of fa­mous Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­phers and see that that ca­reer tra­jec­tory works in a big mar­ket. But you don’t get to be a big player un­less you do one thing bet­ter than any­one else.

“There are quite a few pho­tog­ra­phers in the States who are quite var­ied and do sev­eral things bet­ter than any­one else… they just make sure they are the best at each of those things. Howard Schatz, who turned his hobby into a sec­ond ca­reer, is a good ex­am­ple [he was pre­vi­ously an oph­thal­mol­o­gist]. He came to fame shooting im­ages of dancers and mod­els un­der­wa­ter for the book POOL. He then mined the un­der­wa­ter thing for a bit be­fore he moved to sports. He loved sports and pro­duced some great im­ages. Clients in the USA like you to have a point-of-view – an in­stantly recog­nis­able style – and I have to say Howard Schatz may have a var­ied out­put, but I know one of his im­ages when I see one.”

Hugh’s first job in the USA was pho­tograph­ing Tommy Lee for a Tel­stra ad on a TVC set, but he con­cedes he “…never cracked any big time Amer­i­can clients” even though he would go and see them over and over again. Nev­er­the­less, he still had a very good ca­reer in what he terms “the mi­nor mar­ket”.

“Be­lieve it or not, I wound up shooting clas­sic cars for eight or nine years. It’s sea­sonal, but it’s a big busi­ness. I’d have six solid weeks twice a year when I’d live on aero­planes and wind up in some rich man’s place look­ing at his car col­lec­tion. I started to talk like I knew all about things when I re­ally knew noth­ing at all.

“My men­tor Ge­of­frey McGeachin once said to me, ‘It’s a bull­shit busi­ness, Hugh. If you can bull­shit, you’re in busi­ness’… and you even­tu­ally re­alise that a lot of it is just that. Also, do­ing per­sonal work is partly to build up the mys­tique of your cre­ativ­ity, be­cause 90 per­cent of the time, they’re not go­ing to hire you to be cre­ative, they’re hir­ing you to do a job, but they still want the mys­tique, the siz­zle… we’ve got Hugh on it, did you see his work in suc­hand-such mag­a­zine?”

Even­tu­ally, Hugh fell into cor­po­rate event pho­tog­ra­phy and videog­ra­phy which, he says, didn’t de­mand a lot of cre­ativ­ity, but was both fun and in­ter­est­ing.

After Hugh had pho­tographed Google’s se­nior ex­ec­u­tives for the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, six months later the com­pany asked him to pho­to­graph its ver­sion of an in­vi­teonly TED-type event, called Google Ideas, at its Santa Clara HQ.

“We had North Korean de­fec­tors, Pablo Es­co­bar Ju­nior live on a video link, the head of In­ter­pol… it was an amaz­ing three days.”

He was do­ing a lot of mag­a­zine work in Los An­ge­les, in­clud­ing a busi­ness mag­a­zine for UCLA. Then UCLA’s As­sis­tant Dean tele­phoned him and said, “You know what you did for Google. Well, we’re hav­ing a week-long TED event on cam­pus, so could you do the same for us, but with video as well?”

“And, as you do, I said, ‘ Yes, of course I can do that’, and so I taught my­self Fi­nal Cut Pro in an af­ter­noon.”

Hugh says he re­ally didn’t want to go into video, but “…you could see that, while pho­tog­ra­phy wasn’t dy­ing, it was chang­ing rad­i­cally and so it was a very good idea to add some new strings to your bow”.

The Guy With A Cam­era

Al­though now liv­ing back in Aus­tralia, Hugh com­muted to the USA six times in 2016, mostly for cor­po­rate as­sign­ments and all for US clients.

“The great thing about Amer­ica is, if they like work­ing with you, they don’t care where you live. It’s great to earn US dol­lars, so it’s well worth it for me to go. They also like me be­cause I do both stills and video.

“How­ever, I do need to go off and do some more in­ter­est­ing film work be­cause, at the mo­ment, I’m just the guy who turns up with a cam­era. I do feel the frus­tra­tion of not yet ex­plor­ing the medium prop­erly, but to that end I’ve brought bet­ter cam­eras. I started on Canon D-SLRs, but now I’m us­ing a Pana­sonic GH4 and a Black Magic Mi­cro which is an as­ton­ish­ing video cam­era, but chews up mem­ory. Oops, there goes an­other 30 gigs. And it’s a whole new world of tech­ni­cal stuff to learn if you want to do it bet­ter.”

It’s doubt­ful that Hugh Hamil­ton knew much about ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns when he was 17 and get­ting ham­mered at Avalon RSL with Nick Car­roll and friends. Or driv­ing his Mini Moke around the Bil­gola Bends that he would grow to like “the cor­po­rate stuff” such as economists who talk about “sup­ply side shock”.

“To be a pho­tog­ra­pher,” he con­cludes, “You have to wear a num­ber of hats… sales­per­son, busi­ness per­son, cre­ative artist, hand-holder and pro­ducer.”

Karen-Jane Eyre says, “I think Hugh has a whole wardrobe full of hats and that’s why he’s had such a long and suc­cess­ful ca­reer.”

The ter­ri­ble thing that dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy did to ad­ver­tis­ing pho­tog­ra­phy was that art di­rec­tors stopped draw­ing and they started pulling stock im­ages from stock li­braries.

Mag­a­zine Cov­ers from left to right, Maxim, Black+White and The Sport­book.

Celebrity pho­tos: Nicole Kid­man and Ben Men­del­sohn.

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