Profile – Hugh Hamilton
The Varied Career Of Hugh Hamilton
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?’”
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.”
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.