Top Photography Documentaries
If you love photography, then watching documentaries about iconic photographers will only enhance your appreciation of the medium. Here are some of the best.
This documentary about photographer Gregory Crewdson delves deep into his tableaux work, examining the complexities of his process and the narratives behind each image. He tackles topics such as ethics, professionalism, and fearlessness.
The Salt of the Earth
Wim Wenders, who gave us the transcendent documentaries Buena Vista Social Club and Pina, teams with his son Juliano to capture the life and ethos of Sebastiao Salgado, the world’s most famous photojournalist. This deeply considered film steers clear of the frills that plague many documentary portraits, letting the photographer’s stark black and white photographs speak for themselves.
Salgado’s work illuminates not just the plight of humanity but the planet as a whole. The 71-year-old Brazilian has spent more than 40 years traveling the globe, photographing people who have been marginalized or destroyed. His eloquent conclusion — a Genesis-style act of planting 2 million trees in a formerly barren region of Brazil — offers a fitting capstone to this richly rewarding portrait.
Juliano’s directorial vantage point allows him to access private moments and candid conversations that might have been impossible with an outside director. This intimacy transforms the film into a profound exploration of Salgado’s philosophies and ethos.
Finding Vivian Maier
Mysterious nanny Vivian Maier secretly took more than 100,000 photographs over the course of her life, but never showed them to anyone. When flea market junkie John Maloof stumbled upon her negatives in a storage locker in 2007 and had them developed, he discovered one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers.
The film is a fascinating portrait of a reclusive outsider artist whose enigmatic work is utterly timeless. But the film raises questions about the boundaries of privacy and how far a filmmaker can go in investigating someone’s past, particularly when those who knew the subject would have probably loathed this intrusion.
The most interesting scenes are the interviews with family members of Maier’s clients, who offer mixed memories and hint at her darker side. But ultimately, Finding Vivian Maier fails to answer the central question: would Maier want this kind of attention for her work? Certainly, she was a private woman with her own peculiar demons, but she understood the power of the photograph.
The life and work of a photography legend is the subject of this enthralling documentary. From her iconic portraits of celebrities to her striking fashion shots, Annie Leibovitz has had a profound impact on the world of photography.
McCullin spent most of his career covering wars and humanitarian disasters, including the aftermath of the Stanleyville massacre in the Congo, the US Tet Offensive in Vietnam, man-made famine in Biafra, and civilian murder in Lebanon. His photographs from these periods often reveal a daguerreotype austerity, and are usually shot in black and white.
The film explores McCullin’s sense of responsibility to document, record, truth-tell, and indirectly safeguard lives through his camera lens. He faced a series of moral dilemmas that naturally secreted themselves as he positioned himself in harm’s way in the name of capturing humanity’s most horrific moments. He also re-framed his own sense of photographic integrity to reflect his own sense of obligation to the people in front of him.
Henri Cartier-Bresson began photographing in earnest as a young man, inspired by the work of photographers such as Eugene Atget and Andre Kertesz. He was also influenced by cinema, viewing seminal films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Plow That Broke the Plains and Erich von Stroheim’s The Rules of the Game, which became a source of inspiration for his later documentaries.
In 1935, Cartier-Bresson traveled to New York for a group exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery with photographers Walker Evans and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. He soon met filmmaker Paul Strand and took an interest in the moving image. He subsequently assisted director Jean Renoir on several movies, including La Regle du Jeu, and made his own documentary films.
In 1940, during WWII, Cartier-Bresson joined a French underground photographic unit and was captured by the Germans. He escaped from captivity, and at the end of the war worked with the Office of War Information to make a film about returning prisoners of war and deportees, Le Retour.