LaMont Hamilton is a portrait photographer based in Chicago. After engaging with large format photography, Hamilton began focusing primarily on portraiture. In the footsteps of Richard Avedon, Hamilton routinely seeks out subjects for non-commissioned portraits. Many of these photographs contribute to a series called 75 portraits, a personal project of Hamilton’s that provides a new way to address an old problem. All too often, the art world fails to recognize certain artists of Color who are shaping how we understand the world through visual expression. While currently working on this series, he has traveled across the U.S. photographing prominent artists of Color whose representation adds to a new kind of art historical canon.
Hamilton’s commercial successes include assignments for major marketing campaigns and magazines in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. His portraits have also been featured in several publications. LaMont Hamilton was recently named a recipient of the prestigious Midwest Voices and Visions Award and artist-in-residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts from which his solo exhibition Omaha Portraits was exhibited in collaboration with Bemis and Theaster Gates Rebuild Foundation through Summer 2013.
Q: How did your career as an artist begin?
A: My art career began unconventionally. I’ve always done “art” recreationally, but never attended any schools for formal training. When I was younger, I drew a lot. Figurative at first, but it started evolving to be more abstract during my teenage years, which was the time I discovered the camera. Eventually, I stopped drawing all together and started taking pictures using disposable cameras and my uncle’s old Polaroid. I did this for years, taking pictures of anything and everything. Things started to take shape when I developed a more nuanced approach after discovering photographs by Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, and Walker Evans. From that point on, I started focusing on street life. At this point in my life, I was doing a lot of travelling—an early 20-something searching for himself in the crevices of the cities—and over a 4-year period lived in about 10 different cities, photographing along the way. Eventually, my eye and ideas outpaced my camera technology, so at 21 years old, I bought my first professional camera—a Minolta SRT 101 from the late 1960’s—in order to be able to do more than my disposables and Polaroids would have ever been able to do. This is when I discovered “photography.” Before, I was just taking pictures strictly on impulse without the slightest concern for the technical aspect. Now, with this completely manual camera, I had to learn how to think technically in order to make the pictures I wanted. At first, this was a complete disaster. Aperture, shutter speeds, and ASA’s were foreign languages to me. As a result, my first rolls of film through this camera were totally void of any images whatsoever. I remembered every moment I pressed the shutter what my lens was aimed at, what I wanted to capture… but looking at those empty rolls of film, there was no trace of those delicate moments that were so embedded in my memory. Then I became obsessed with figuring out how to make it work. I needed to know how to capture the moments that, looking through the viewfinder of my new camera, make my heart flutter with excitement. This is when I knew I found what I was looking for. My passion for image making took over.
I began to hone my eye and as my skills grew, so did the interest in my work. I started by selling prints—begrudgingly, might I add. My photographs were deeply personal. They were more a journey of my life as it was unfolding than a decorative item to be sold. But a friend at the time had an uncle who collected photography and my friend told him about my photographs, so his uncle wanted to see them. After showing them to him and speaking about the backstory of the images, he asked how much I was selling them for. A question I had never been asked before. So I gave him a price that, in hindsight was ridiculous, and he bought six of the ten. Then I realized I could actually make money off my passion.
Photo shoots and high end clients ensued which led me to Chicago. Now I’ve been here for almost seven years.
Q: What has been a major source of inspiration for you and your work?
A: People, primarily. I’m interested in who people are and who they appear to be. That’s why a large part of my practice is portraiture.
Social relations and race relations, representations and identity are also major sources of inspiration.
Q: What drew you to portraiture? What do you hope to communicate/represent with your work?
A: I’ve always had a fascination with people and human behavior, and much like any other artist I have an incessant need to express what I feel. Portraiture provides me the space for this expression; a space to capture what I absorb from my subjects—a chance to interpret not only who, but also the what, why, where, and how facets that are often buried within a subject’s physical presence and gaze. For me, a great portrait is enlivened by the dynamic exchange between the photographer and the subject, a concentration that I believe should underline all portraits. A gesture captured at just the right moment can be transformed from a natural movement into a timeless vibrance, or a subtle, historical grace. This is how the spirits of artists, activists, innovators, and history-makers resonate a force that a viewer undeniably feels.
This interpretation of the subject represents the truth of the moment to me. As a photographer, you realize your limitation. There is so much to be captured but only so much the camera allows. But still, if you look deeply into the eyes of a portrait, you just might be able to find the who. If you dare look deeper, you will likely connect with the what, why, and where… then perhaps most importantly, you may be ignited and inspired by the how.
My interpretation of my sitters is driven by intuition and humanity. Through conversations and connections, I am allowed to step into their lives, time, and energy. This is an amazing responsibility as an artist: to unravel the human side of my subjects. To reveal their strength, their fragility, their passions, the essence captured within their faces.
Q: Is there anything you think is unique or special about the Chicago arts scene?
A: I think the special thing about the Chicago arts scene is space. Space to create. Space to explore ideas. You don’t have to fight against a cultural current as much in order to find your own individuality in this city, which can be the case in other places. Chicago is also a place of rich and complex history. If one wanted, one could delve deep into this reservoir and create some very interesting work.