Ten Must See Photography Documentaries and Their Trailers

If I ever find myself wallowing in a creative rut, I have a few surefire ways out of that hole. My most effective method, although probably not the quickest, is to watch a documentary on another photographer. They need not be similar to your own brand of photography; in fact, I often feel it's better when they aren't. Whatever sub-genre of photography the subject does, a documentary is invariably a rich vein of ideas and inspiration.

If you think I've missed any out of this list, please leave a comment with your suggestion.

Bill Cunningham New York

Without question one of my favourites, "Bill Cunningham New York" is an insight into the godfather of street fashion photography, a movement that has generated a lot of steam in the last ten years. Bill isn't just a photographer with many other strings to his bow like most; he is a disciple of photography and an index of street fashion for over five decades. His life has been a mission to record street style and he has reaped the sort of rewards his dedication deserves. Bill is a hero of mine and I implore you to watch this.

Finding Vivian Maier

This is a tale far more interesting than most for so many bizarre reasons. The story, in short, is a man bought a trunk full of 100,000 negatives and found one of the greatest street photographers of all time, who had actively hidden away from the limelight. Vivian Maier was seemingly odd, withdrawn, and mercurial, but with an undeniable talent for the visual arts. This documentary delves into the secret life and the hidden works of a lady obsessed with photography, but equally obsessed with privacy. The film ends up as almost a mystery thriller and documentary hybrid.

McCullin

War photography is a difficult and contentious area of photography, but I would argue that you almost ought not to form an opinion on the subject until you've seen this. "McCullin" is a harrowing and engaging documentary that naturally secretes moral dilemma after moral dilemma with Don McCullin's astounding portraiture. Morality aside, however, Don risked his life on the frontlines time and time again to witness horrors that few people could endure unscathed, all in the interest of reporting what would otherwise go mostly untold. History owes Don a debt of gratitude, and this documentary is well worth your time.

​Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light

This is a documentary on Richard Avedon, one of the most successful fashion and portrait photographers of the last hundred years. His portfolio boasts portraits including the likes of Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles, and Andy Warhol. His work sold for in excess of one million dollars at art auctions and his obituary in The New York Times in 2004 read:

…his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty, and culture for the last half-century.

https://youtu.be/S1f3egvLwVE

5 Broken Cameras

This is perhaps more inspiration for the videographers and documentary makers, but "5 Broken Cameras" is an important testament to dedication in capturing history. Emad Brunat, a Palestinian farmer, records parts of the violent Israeli and Palestinian conflict firsthand and the turmoil it brings upon his village. This documentary was nominated for an Academy Award as well as winning a whole host of accolades.

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

There's no denying it: Annie Leibovitz is a titan of modern photography. No Vanity Fair party is without her and her camera, and her portfolio of A-list celebrities is so full that she has become one herself. This documentary isn't harrowing like some of the others on this list, and it isn't as mysterious neither. What it is is a unique insight into the rise of one of the greatest photographers of our time and an intimate look at the person behind the wealth of images Annie produces.

War Photographer

I realize that war photography is becoming a theme in this list, but I find it captivating, and the subject's work is almost always like nothing you've seen before. James Nachtwey is not at all what you would expect from a war photographer; he is soft-spoken and not at all numb to the atrocities he sees and records. It's this nakedness that really challenges the age-old debate over the morality of capturing the horrors of war. Although seemingly quiet and reserved, James didn't miss a war for 20 years. I read that sentence over and over to try and make sense of all the implications and the flippant nature of it, but it's too much to really comprehend. 

Smash His Camera

This documentary is all about contentious photography, but in quite a different way. Ron Galella is (although less so at the age of 85) a paparazzi like no other. At his prime, he was invasive, relentless, dedicated, and shameless. He exhibited traits and behaviors that are demonized in today's society, but his work has become iconic. Ron's approach may be repugnant, but it's certainly interesting.

https://youtu.be/3ppEFBHidVY

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

This is a frankly horrifying look into Calcutta's Red Light District, but with a unique perspective. Photographer Zana Briski realized that capturing the inside of this seedy area was almost impossible, until she armed local children with point and shoot film cameras. It is deeply saddening to hear each child's story and experiences, but, much like war photography and reportage, it's important work.

Baraka

I was of two minds whether to include this on the list, as it's less about the photographer and more about photography and cinematography. However, as far as inspiration goes, I can't name many documentaries with more power and impact than this. "Baraka" was filmed in 70mm Todd-AO format and was restored and scanned to 8K resolution. It separates itself from the pack, however, in not only the format of the frames, but in that it has no narrative and no narrator. It is a visual journey through  24 countries and their cultures in a period of little over a year. At times, I wish there were voiceovers explaining the rituals and history of the subjects, but at the same time, I understand why that might detract for what is a unique festival of visuals. This 1992 documentary is so far ahead of its time visually that it begs the question of what must be possible today.

Remember to add your suggestions of must see photography documentaries in the comments, as this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather one photographer's experience.

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48 Comments

Sean Shimmel's picture

Such a worthy post. War Photographer continues to deeply imprint its urgency and visual sensibilities well beyond the 4th viewing. As does Nachtwey's tome Inferno which I bought directly after my first viewing.

Josh A Katz's picture

This is a great list and I really hate to be"that guy" but as per 5 Broken Cameras, an Academy Award is an Oscar.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Not at all. I reworded that line and it got a bit confused. Well spotted -- thanks.

gene jurisic's picture

Seen all but one.. Thinking Visual Acoustic: Story of Julius Schulman should be on this list.. One of my favorites.. Heres the trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUQErQtVI04

Justin Sharp's picture

Great list. I would add "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters"

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Mark Levine's picture

Don't forget about the BBC's film about Vivian Maier. Very different and really fascinating!
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Matias Chahbenderian's picture

I think tha The Sault of Earth is a must see too, I really recommend you to check it out!
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rodrigo cacho's picture

I was just going to post that. I think its not just one of the best photography documentaries but one of the best documentaries full stop.

Matias Chahbenderian's picture

I agree, the best one I have seen.

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I went to see the Sebastião Salgado Genesis exhibition in London a few years back and it was like walking around a complete masterclass in photography. No matter which brand of photography he did, be it landscape, wildlife, portraiture and so on, the shots were as high quality as I'd ever seen in print. He also -- almost single-handedly -- changed my opinion of black and white images.

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Seeing his work printed must be awesome! He really has an unique style. I'm doing a biography of Sebastiao in my school he really is an unique person...

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