Review by Sean Boelman
Biographical documentaries at festivals tend to be hit or miss — with the most fascinating often being the subjects you already know about. Even though Uncropped doesn’t have a household name for its subject, the stories photographer James Hamilton has to share with skilled filmmaker D.W. Young make this a hidden gem to keep an eye out for.
In the documentary, Hamilton offers a chronicle of his career, which allowed him to take pictures across different beats and on film sets across the United States and around the world. Although the documentary is a biography, Hamilton’s life and career are so extraordinary that it stands out.
On its surface, Uncropped may feel like a pretty conventional combination of archive materials — pulled from Hamilton’s extensive library of work — and talking heads. However, the talking heads here feel more conversational than those in your average documentary. Part of it is just that Young tends to interview more than one person at once, allowing a dialogue to form, but even when conducting a solo interview, he asks fantastic, engaging questions.
As is the case with many biographical documentaries, how much the viewer engages with the movie will depend on how interested they are in the subject. However, with a veritable hodgepodge of a resume and portfolio, there’s something for everyone’s interests in Uncropped. And while it is on the longer side — a little over 110 minutes — the sheer amount of stories Hamilton has to tell keeps it moving.
The portion of Uncropped that is likely to gain it the most attention is its exploration of Hamilton’s career as a stills photographer. Working on film sets for filmmakers including George A. Romero and Wes Anderson (the latter of which serves as an executive producer on this documentary), Hamilton effectively revolutionized the art of film stills. For anyone with an interest in cinema, this is sure to be utterly fascinating.
The other side of Hamilton’s career is his bout as a journalist, which is arguably even more storied than his work shooting film stills. Although it may not be the documentary’s primary focus, there is room for questions to be asked about the role journalists and the images they create play in culture and society in the portion exploring his more provocative work.
One of the most impressive things about Young’s approach is that he manages to make the movie feel quite unfussy. Many documentaries set on the art scene tend to feel somewhat pretentious and uptight, but Hamilton’s very low-key personality makes him a much more approachable subject. Yet audiences will still walk away feeling nothing but admiration for the tremendous artist Hamilton is.
Uncropped is a very well-made biographical documentary that is fascinating thanks to its subject’s tremendous career. Whether you’re coming into this looking to learn about cinema or the world of journalism, you’re sure to leave feeling absolutely satisfied.
Uncropped is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.