With the wide theatrical release of "The Picture Of His Life" just a few days away, I thought it might be interesting to create a list of some of the best documentaries about photography and photographers ever made. What are your favorites?
Before we get started, I think we'll need some ground rules as we put together this list of some of the best photography-centric documentaries ever made.
First, documentaries only. No biopics or real-life narratives. Although I love "Bang Bang Club," it's not a documentary. As good as it is, neither is "Under Fire." Second, we're looking for documentaries about photography and photographers, about their process, not by photographers. This means that as much as I admire "Manufactured Landscapes" and "Anthropocene," they aren't about photographers or their process. They are, in and of themselves, photography, like "Baraka." Last, on the whole, I'm looking for films intended or constructed for standalone theatrical release. I'm a big fan of Edward Weston's "Photographer," but this was a 28-minute piece intended to be tagged on to feature-length films as an added bonus. It was never intended to sell tickets all on its own. Likewise, nothing makes me happier than watching or reading anything about Helmut Newton, but "Helmut by June" is a made-for-TV movie. So, it doesn't fit here. As controversial as this may be, this means all of the fantastic PBS series American Masters dealing with photographers are out. Ditto for "Nobody's Here But Me" about Cindy Sherman, and the plethora of Ansel Adams TV specials.
Note: I will write a second installment focussing on made-for-TV, photography-centric documentaries.
"The Picture of His Life"
"The Picture Of His Life" follows underwater photographer extraordinaire Amos Nachoum in his quest to photograph a polar bear in the water. To be released on June 19, 2020, the trailer looks through a series of Nachoum's most famous photos and teases his close encounters with a plethora of fearsome creatures.
Gregory Crewdson: "Brief Encounters"
"Brief Encounters" is an in-depth look at Crewdson's process for creating his cinematic-inspired tableaux. The film touches on where he finds his inspiration, scouting, logistics, and even looks at the post-processing of his images. It's spectacular to get such a deep and behind the scenes look at one of the most successful large format art photographers working today.
When I first saw it, the documentary about James Nachtwey, "War Photographer," moved me like few other films ever have. Seeing the film not that long after 9/11 had a tremendous effect on me. Nachtwey's belief that photographers are political, that they are involved, and that we're all involved in the tragedies happening around the world helped to shape my world view.
"[Some journalists] say, 'I'm sorry, I'm a journalist, I'm not a part of this.' And I say, but you are a part of it. I think a lot of people would be quite happy for that man to be killed so they can get the particular picture that they want.
The way that the film uses a micro camera mounted on Nachtwey's SLR in order to see what he sees drives home the point that we're all in this together.
"Salt of the Earth"
The recent Wim Wenders' "Salt of the Earth" documentary about Sebastião Salgado is an award-winning look into the motivations and process of one of the best documentary photographers. The film implies that over his career, Salgado has elevated documentary photography into an art form like few others.
I find it interesting that like Nachtwey, Salgado sees photographers as interlopers with a point of view. As neutrality is impossible, Salgado, himself a UNICEF Ambassador, seems to believe that photographers should use their position to affect their subjects for the better.
"Through a Lens Darkly"
"Through a Lens Darkly," originally released at Sundance back in 2014, explores what it means for black Americans to have self-identity in part created through images taken by white photographers. Rewatching this recently, it's startling to realize how much shaky mobile phone footage in our modern urban setting has in common with lynching photographs from decades past. The documentary really shines when it looks at images of black Americans taken by black Americans and talks about creating identity in the face of identity imposed by the other.
"The Mexican Suitcase"
A bit of a different view of photography, "The Mexican Suitcase" looks at memory and the power photography can have in shaping memory. Much like "Salt of the Earth" and "War Photographer," "The Mexican Suitcase" doesn't look at photography as a neutral medium, but as an active part of history.
"Guest of Cindy Sherman"
Perhaps the oddest choice on my list, "Guest of Cindy Sherman" isn't really a documentary about photography per se, but instead about the world of fine art photography and about the greater art scene. The chance to get an inside look at Sherman's very private world is worth the price of admission alone. But, it's the examination of the value of art and photography that makes this a must-see.
"Smash His Camera"
"Smash His Camera" starts off as a documentary about infamous paparazzi photographer Ron Galella. However, at some point, the documentary becomes more about the modern fascination with celebrity and the two-way street that Galella's invasion of privacy offered his celebrity targets. Given that our cult of celebrity shows no signs of abating, it's a worthy use of your time to look at this film as a tool to explore the value and meaning of celebrity and how photography helps to create it.
"A Last Word"
If anything unites this list, it's that photography isn't just taking pictures. It's about interacting with your world the way you see. As nobody is ever truly neutral, neither can there be neutrality in photography. Whether it is about creating a memory, shaping memory, building identity, or pushing an agenda, photography is an act of creation that has to take sides.
What did I leave off the list?
Lead image/still from "The Picture Of His Life" trailer, Playmount Productions.