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Not many people find beauty when the thermometer reads 30° below, but that’s what makes photographer Stuart Hamilton unique. A true adventurer at heart, two years ago he set off by car out of Anchorage, Alaska, in search of a remote and cold location for Lexus. “It was just before Christmas and every single tree was frozen solid—that lovely crisp frost on the twigs, gorgeous,” recalls Hamilton. Not content with a bleak snowfield, he discovered a frozen lake high in a mountain range and only accessible via ski plane. Hamilton was traveling with his first assistant Nick Kelly and Duncan Marshall, now executive creative director of droga5, who remembers, “Stuart convinced a pilot to drop us off in the middle of this lake and fly around for an hour while he set up the shot, as it was too cold for the plane to stay on the ground. It took a couple of attempts to land as the snow was deep. The pilot casually mentioned that he’d nearly flipped the aircraft in the unusually deep snow. Stuart was grinning from ear to ear.”

The pilot warned them to stay away from the glacier, which loomed over one end of the lake. “The best picture’s by the glacier, isn’t it?” Hamilton remembers with a mischievous smile, and off they went. He had to work fast as the cameras were freezing up. Without warning, a house-size chunk sheared off the base of the glacier into the lake. The sound of the ice cracking was deafening and they could feel the water surge beneath them. Hamilton thought this was it. Once he realized that he was still thankfully standing, it was time to go; he had the picture.

Marshall, who has worked on and off with Hamilton for the last ten years, advises, “If you’re after mollycoddling and cappuccinos on a shoot, then Stuart may not be your guy. But if you want to look back on your career at all the shoots you do as an art director and be able to find one to tell your grandchildren about, then Stuart is definitely going to have to be in your Rolodex.”

Hamilton’s career fits in nicely with his spirit of adventure and love of travel. “As a location photographer, I’m very conscious that I can go anywhere, India, Africa, Japan, wherever, but a lot of those pictures have been done. I want to go to places that are not so typical.” He’s driven to find ideal settings for his clients, and it shows in the clean, graphic images he creates for BMW, Hummer, Sony, Lexus, Orange, HSBC, Toyota, among many others.

When asked about inspiration, he replies, “I get inspiration from what I see myself—the light. When I’m outside and it’s dawn or even in the city when the light is shining between buildings or bouncing off the glass, that’s what moves me to take pictures.”

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The only child of John and Margaret Hamilton, Stuart was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but calls a farm in Perthshire home. His father, trained as a draftsman for structural engineers, moved the family out of the city to eastern Scotland when Stuart was a young boy. Growing up in the country had a profound effect on him, but it was at a boarding school where his love of the land and photography collided.

Hamilton spent seven years at school in the Scottish Highlands, where natural beauty was just outside his door. Armed with an old camera his father had given him, his assigned weekend walks of six to seven miles proved to be golden opportunities. “I was in the Scottish Highlands with gorgeous light, or not sometimes,” he says referring to Britain’s infamous gray skies. “I liked the idea of taking pictures, inspired more by the landscape in Scotland than anything else.”

He realized quickly that photography was his career choice. Like many other parents of aspiring artists, Hamilton’s father tried to steer him away from photography, arranging for him to serve a three-year apprenticeship in the print industry. He now appreciates the experience—because when he supplies a file to someone, he understands what happens to it—though at the time he knew that it was not what he wanted to do. “I started using all my time off and sick days to take pictures,” he remembers.

Slowly but surely, Hamilton built up a business in Edinburgh. In order to survive as a commercial photographer, he couldn’t specialize, so he did a bit of everything—portraits, still life, etc. But his heart wasn’t in studio work. “Ultimately what I wanted to do was—where I started—photograph landscapes. I enjoy being out in open spaces with beautiful light. Working in a studio for eight hours lighting some backdrop just didn’t do it for me.”

After ten years in Edinburgh, Hamilton decided that was enough—he wanted to get back to his inspiration. Today he remembers Edinburgh fondly. It was time well spent in terms of his career, and it was also where he met his wife Jillian and began their family.

The decision to leave Edinburgh was huge for Hamilton, both professionally and personally. He had a successful business and he willingly left it all behind in 1998. “We made the commitment when we moved, and it was very difficult that first year. It was eight months before I got my first job,” he recalls. Hamilton was determined to give it his all—no small feat with a growing family in tow and their savings from Scotland running out.

I get the chance to go and take a picture the way I would want to take it. It just so happens to have a car or a person in it. It’s a privilege."

“The work eventually turned around and I haven’t looked back since. It’s been really, really good.”

After London kicked into high gear, Hamilton seemed intent on conquering the world. He went to Paris and got a French agent. Germany was next, then Spain and finally the United States. Having agents in different countries has allowed him to work for a range of clients, with both large and small budgets and varying degrees of creative license. Parlez vous français?
A few years ago, while in Portugal on a shoot with producer Adam Whittaker, the two began chatting, comparing the U.K. to the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region in France, where Adam lived. That conversation, and the images of rural France it conjured up, stayed with Hamilton long after the shoot was complete. Soon, he and Jillian cast their net around that same area. Two years ago, they found their home—a 300-year-old, 2-story farmhouse in Ledeuix.

Ledeuix is a small village, home to just over 1,000 people, and the Hamilton clan added six more inhabitants. Jillian spoke French before the move, Stuart has picked it up along the way, but it is their children—Alex, 13, Max, 11, and identical twin girls Suzie and Zara, 6, who have really flourished in the South of France. They now speak fluent French and thrive in the countryside, much like their father, who says, “I don’t feel so at home in cities.

“People think it was a big deal to up and move to France,” Hamilton admits. “It was more of a big move to come to London, from Scotland, because that was giving up a business to do something I wasn’t sure was going to work. Whereas I knew if I was living in France, I’d still be doing the same job. By then, it didn’t matter where I was.

“As for France, I don’t know if we’ll stay there. We’ll see. I love Spain actually…though I haven’t got my French right yet, never mind my Spanish,” the globetrotter says with a laugh. He admits that the number system would be a welcome relief in Spain, as the French system is very complex. “You’re doing the math in your head the whole time before you’ve even said anything. For example, the number 78 doesn’t exist. You say instead soixante-dix-huit, literally 60 10 8. It’s alright for small numbers but when you get into the thousands, it’s a real mouthful!”

After twenty years, Hamilton has earned his way to working with top creatives in the ad industry and still gets a kick out of the business. “I get the chance to go and take a picture the way I would want to take it. It just so happens to have a car or a person in it. It’s a privilege,” he says modestly.

I get inspiration from what I see myself—the light. When I’m outside and it’s dawn or even in the city when the light is shining between buildings or bouncing off the glass, that’s what moves me to take pictures.”

He brings his vision to each and every job, with strong feelings about composition. Though he readily admits it’s all about collaboration, and choices certainly help. “I’ll shoot it my way and their way and they can choose at the end of the day. It’s better than falling out and never working with someone again. Generally, they come back around to your way of thinking, and it’s reassuring when you see your version in print.”

Of course the most successful collaborations are those when Hamilton is brought on board very early in the process. Take for instance his work for Hummer. Modernista! had just won the account and contacted him when they were conceiving the campaign. A real treat for Hamilton, who came in with an idea, presented it to this young agency that, in turn, sold it to the client. The client then flew two Hummers to Chile, where Hamilton, his crew and creative directors Will Uronis and Shane Hutton drove around the varied, untamed landscape. Opportunity presented itself everywhere. “It’s somewhat unheard of for a car client to not scout, not detail the cars, but it worked out so well. Modernista! originally wanted four spreads and we shot material for twelve…It was a fantastic shoot.”

Every year, Hamilton tries to do one personal trip for a self-promotion project. He and Jillian have traveled to far-off locations, such as Iceland and Namibia. Lately he has teamed up with his friend, Patrick Ellis, a British producer who now lives in México. Ellis comes up with ideas to visit countries off the beaten path, and the two have traveled to Old Havana in Cuba, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and into México producing some of Hamilton’s most striking images. For Hamilton, whose greatest enjoyment is being outdoors, in a remote setting with the sun rising over the horizon, these trips provide more than fuel for his creativity, they keep things in balance.

Seeing a young girl in Mongolia who has nothing but an old ball to play with keeps him mindful of his privileged position. He wants to pass that thoughtfulness to his children. His younger son, Max, travels with him often. “Where we live now, we can drive to the Sahara in Morocco. It’s good for him to see and realize he’s got an awful lot at home those kids haven’t,” he says.

At 40, Hamilton has stayed true to his original inspiration. Land and light live prominently in his photographs. “Most people can take one good picture in their life. Good professional photographers keep taking great pictures, true to their vision,” concludes this accomplished, self-taught photographer who brings seemingly barren landscapes to life through his lens. ca

Rebecca Bedrossian is global content director of POSSIBLE in Portland, Oregon. The former managing editor of Communication Arts, Bedrossian has been immersed in the world of design and advertising for over 15 years. She has served on the board of AIGA San Francisco, and her articles on visual culture and creatives have appeared in publications throughout the industry.


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