Photography: From director John Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961), with Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark, shot on location in Brackettville, Texas. John R. Hamilton/John Wayne Enterprises
From director John Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961), with Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark, shot on location in Brackettville, Texas. Photography: John R. Hamilton/John Wayne Enterprises

Photographer John R. Hamilton captured the American West through Hollywood’s eyes.

John R. Hamilton chronicled the filming of some 77 motion pictures, many of them epic westerns, and captured their stars in unguarded moments behind the scenes. It’s been called one of the greatest collections of American Western and Hollywood photography.

The exhibition John R. Hamilton: Hollywood and the American West features 70 rarely seen and some never-before-seen photographs from his prodigious portfolio. Their famous faces are so familiar: John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret, John Ford, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot, Charlton Heston, William Holden, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, David Carradine, Steve McQueen, Yvette Mimieux, Sal Mineo, Howard Hawks, James Caan, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover. But the way we see them through Hamilton’s lens is anything but familiar.

“John Hamilton’s photographs were intimate and sexy, and he captured our heroes in American cinema like no one else,” renowned photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber once commented. “He gave us an insider’s view of incredibly private people, capturing a special world that is somewhere between a movie set and home.” He also got an insider’s perspective of dramatic on-location scenes — often in extreme long shots that conveyed not just the magnificence of the filmmaking but of the West itself.

Hamilton’s accomplished and comprehensive depiction of the cinematic Old West earned him the label “Remington With a Camera.” It also garnered 300 magazine covers and the respect of his industry colleagues.

His career got off to an auspicious start: A magazine photojournalist hired as a special photographer on his first film in 1956, he landed on the set of the Ford-Wayne classic The Searchers. Over the next decades, Hamilton would go on to a brilliant career as a cinema lens man, including special photographer on five of Ford’s final films, and four movies and a cover story with Wayne.

“What inextricably linked the three was their love of the American West,” according to John Wayne Enterprises, which has acquired the John Wayne and Western landscape portion of the collection, some 3,000 of the tens of thousands of images. “Ford set the scene (Monument Valley was his favorite location), Wayne portrayed the unvanquished hero, and Hamilton was the poet laureate who painted the canvas with his action photographs and his stunning vistas of an elegiac West.”

John R. Hamilton: Hollywood and the American West is on view February 3 – May 14 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.

From the February/March 2017 issue.