Ansel Adams was once quoted as saying “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” A man this could not ring truer for is photographer Brian Hamill. A New York City native that has seen it all.
(Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Brooklyn, 1979)
The image above of De Niro and Pesci first caught my eye from Brian’s catalog of work, but as you start to dig, the faces that shaped our world in the 1960’s and 70’s begin to emerge from behind his lens.
Recently I sat down with him at my local coffee spot, Minerva Cafe, to hear a few stories and to provide a link between images on this site and the eye behind them. After the break is our conversation along with a few photos you might recognize. Enjoy.
Sean Sullivan: Brian, you’ve contributed to some of the most memorable images taken during the 60’s and 70’s. How did it all start?
Brian Hamill: I went to RIT and I have an older brother Pete who’s a novelist and a journalist, so I have journalism in my blood. I shot some pics for Pete’s articles in the 60’s for the Saturday Evening Post and later for New York Magazine. I also worked for a couple years as a fashion photographer assistant, which I didn’t really like. In 1970 I started in the movies. So while I was shooting movies in between gigs my life was filled with photojournalism assignments.
In ’69 when I was working as an assistant my brother Pete friended a PR guy named Harvey Matofsky in Rome. When he got back to NY he called up my brother and asked if he knew any photographers that could take a couple pictures of a starlet. I used the studio of the photographer I was working for and did the photos. I didn’t charge him. A year later he became a producer on a movie and hired me as the still photographer on the gig. So my first movie job at 22 was in Rome, Sicily and in Tunisia. I barely knew what I was doing but learned quickly having no fear of failure.
(Brian Hamill, 1973)
SMS: That was kind of a golden age of NYC filmmaking?
BH: Yeah, well in the 60‘s & 70’s they still made good movies (laughs). Now they just mostly make fucking garbage….well not all of them. Woody and Scorsese still make good movies. Those two guys will always do good work.
SMS: Filmmaking back then was a whole different monster.
BH: Now opening weekend is the most important thing. It’s purely a business.
SMS: So who were your major influences back then?
BH: My brother Pete did a lot of assignments with Burk Uzzle and Burt Glinn. They were both really good. They shot for the Saturday Evening Post. Henri-Cartier Bresson was my biggest influence though. He was the reason I wanted to be a photographer in the beginning. Him, Irving Penn and Walker Evans. Nowadays I love the work of Sebastião Salgado.
SMS: Did you realize who you were shooting back then?
BH: You mean the iconic nature of it?
BH: To a degree, yeah. When you’re shooting Muhammed Ali and Lennon, you don’t get any more iconic. They were on a plateau of their own though. Listen…I got to work with some great actors in my career and I don’t dismiss that at all. Different guys I worked with like De Niro, Bobby Duval, Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman and of course Woody Allen…all great wonderful actors. But when you’re shooting Ali…
SMS: You know.
SMS: It seems like celebrity back then and celebrity now are totally different world and word.
BH: Put it this way…hip people from my generation would never have a photograph of Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears on their wall. We’re talking about icons…
SMS: The world doesn’t seem to make them anymore.
BH: (pauses) I would have to agree with you. They’re Page Six inhabitants, not icons.
SMS: How were The Stones?
BH: November 27, 1969 was the first time they played the Garden and I was next to the lip of the stage shooting. It’s funny when I first met Keith I said “I was at one of your first NY concerts.” He said “At the Garden?” “No, the Academy of Music.” “Wow…you WERE at our first show. Not many were.”
It was 1964 and half empty.
(Mick Jagger, Madison Square Gardens, 1969)
SMS: Did you take any shots at that show?
BH: No, I was just there to listen. I was a Stones freak. I shot them for the first time at a party my brother had in the West Village. They came with a friend, the legendary Al Aronowitz. That was in ’65 I think.
SMS: Amazing. 1969 was a hell of a year.
BH: Oh yeah (laughing). ‘67 and ’69 were kind of revolutionary years for me. I ended up going to Woodstock with my best friend from Brooklyn.
SMS: Did you know what you were getting into up there?
BH: No way. We had a couple tickets but nobody took them. There was no gate to take them from. It had turned into a free concert. I had a little red Fiat that we parked and by the time it was in full swing I couldn’t get it out. We had to wait a day and a half after it was over to move the car. We had a blast though. There were about 30 people from my old neighborhood in Brooklyn.
SMS: What were you shooting on back then? Which camera?
BH: Nikon. Still shoot on Nikon! That and a Leica were the workhorses of the day. You could drop the Nikon and nothing would happen to it. I used to get mine fixed up on 47th street. My buddy Marty Forscher could fix anything that went wrong with a camera.
SMS: Do you have a favorite shot that you’ve taken?
BH: Haha. That’s like saying you have a favorite kid. I like the De Niro/Pesci one you like and the one from “Manhattan” a lot. If you’re working on iconic movies, you end up with a handful of really iconic images. I was lucky in that sense. I worked on some good movies.
SMS: That must have been a hell of a change going from a fashion assistant to shooting features?
BH: I knew when I was working then as an assistant, even though I was surrounded by all these gorgeous models, that I didn’t like that world. It was too shallow. The pretty women kept me around for a little bit while I was learning my craft, but I always knew it wasn’t for me. Photojournalism, movie stills and portraits ultimately rang my bell louder.
SMS: How was “Raging Bull?” Chaotic set?
BH: A tense set. Back in those days De Niro was really getting into his characters. He was playing a scumbag, Jake LaMotta. It was intense but we always got along. Off camera he’s one of the nicest guys in the world.
SMS: Did you guys hang in the Village a lot back in the late 60’s?
BH: Yes, for sure. Back then me and my friends from Brooklyn would start out in the local bar in out Brooklyn neighborhood. Drink a few bears, smoke a few joints, then we’d head in to our three hangouts in Manhattan…ya know make the round of clubs. A couple times a week we’d start out at Steve Paul’s Scene which was on 46th and 8th, great rock and roll spot. Great door guy, Teddy. Great music. Hendrix played there a bunch. After that we’d head up to Ungano’s on W 70th, run by these two brothers, you know neighborhood guys, Nicky and Arnie. Really nice guys. Again, Hendrix jammed there. The Rascals played there. Made CBGB’s look like boy scout camp. And then we’d end up at Ondine’s on 59th st. Owned by a photographer friend of mine Jerry Schatzberg. I saw The Doors play there for the first time. Those three clubs were our rounds. Great times - great music.
Steve Paul’s Scene was where I went first. Late ’65. It reminded me of…have you ever been to Paris? Those little jazz joints with the tiny postage stamp stages? That’s what it was like.
SMS: This neighborhood, the West Village seems to have incubated a lot of the movements that came out of New York in the 60’s? Is this your favorite part of New York City?
BH: Oh yeah. Totally. Coming here in the 60’s was like a treat to the eyes. You’d see…non-conformists everywhere. We’d come here and walk around to see what was going on. I lived here in the early 70’s. Had a place over on 6th Ave for 300 a month! It was the flip side of the coin over here in those days.
SMS: What person do you admire most out of that era?
BH: There’s a couple people. John Lennon, Muhammed Ali but personally my sister and all my brothers are my real heroes. I’m a degenerate boxing fan so you can’t get any better than Ali and you can’t get any better than Lennon. I’m really fortunate to have been able to photograph him on a couple different occasions. Couldn’t have been nicer. He made me a grilled cheese sandwich! I was in his kitchen taking pictures and he asked me if I was hungry. There was a helper walking around the house and I thought he was going to ask her to make up some food. He gets up and pulls out the frying pan and whips up a…well he called it a “grilled crisp” (laughs). Very humble man.
(John Lennon, Rooftop of The Dakota, 1975)
SMS: Are there any actors you wish you had worked with on a movie or photographed for a magazine?
BH: For sure, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart but not necessarily in that order. They were all superlative actors, they all had great ‘walks’ and they were all cool.
BH: Yes. Walks! A guy can’t be a movie star if he doesn’t have a great walk. Street guys have good walks in their DNA. We used to call it a diddy-boppin’ walk. If an actor doesn’t have one he will never be a star. He can play lames, but never a leading man. I still walk that walk.
SMS: Any advice for the kids? A personal motto?
BH: Personal motto? “No cigarettes, no booze, no drugs, no men.” I hope your female readers get that.
My advice to young photographers is to get out and do it. Go shoot. Even if you’re not making any bread from the pictures, if they’re good, someday they will be valuable.
That’s what makes me leery about digital. I see so many people taking photos and then forever looking down at their cameras, admiring their work or something. They’re missing all the action! It’s all about, as Bresson would say, The Decisive Moment. Hold onto your images. You look at them with a different eye everyday, even more so when it’s years later.
I’m still ridin’ the ride with this life. And my photographs still improve as time goes by.
The waitress comes over and offers us more coffee and the conversation drifts off into our favorite albums and a few neighborhood stories I promised Brian I’d keep out to, as he would say, “protect the guilty.”
(Manhattan, Aug 14th, 1978)
Other ways to see his work: