Movies are one of my favorite things, so of course, movies about photography are even better. Here are 10 movies every photographer should watch.
Some of these are about a photographer, while some use photography as a throughline, but all feature it prominently in some way (save for the third on the list). The list is in no particular order.
Warning: Some these films and the clips below contain strong violence, themes, and sexuality.
1. "One Hour Photo"
Robin Williams was of course known for his tremendous comedic talents, but he also possessed impressive dramatic range, and perhaps nowhere else is this better on display than in "One Hour Photo." It's a grippingly tense thriller about a lonely photo lab technician who becomes delusional and obsessed with a family whose photos he develops and begins stalking them, eventually snapping when he uncovers a reality that doesn't fit into the idealistic fantasy he's built around them. It's well worth watching.
2. "Rear Window"
"Rear Window" is a movie everyone should see, not just photographers. Arguably Hitchcock's best demonstration of his complete command of suspense, it does a masterful job of tapping into our natural curiosity and desire to watch the lives of others from a distance, only to play on our feelings of dread and helplessness when the faraway events suddenly land on our doorstep. Normally highly mobile photographer L.B. Jeffries breaks his leg and is confined to a wheelchair, and he passes the time watching his neighbors through his telephoto lens. While he mostly ends up spying on middling, everyday dramas, his keen photographer instincts and obsession with his neighbors' lives make him convinced he's uncovered a murder, setting into motion a series of dramatic events and one of the most fantastic climaxes in the history of film. Plus, it's a film featuring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. What more could you ask for?
In fairness, this isn't a movie about photography so much as the modern art world, but it's such a wickedly intelligent and biting satire of it that any photographer should be able to find some common ground with it and have a good laugh while watching it. The plot centers around a new music composer who seems to incessantly toe that fine line between genius pushing the boundaries of art and nonsense. Despite his best efforts to hide it, he harbors a need for a bit of validation, particularly from his brother, a commercially successful painter whom he considers a bit of a sellout. The film leaves no portion of the art world safe from its jabs, and it makes for a hilarious ride.
4. "Finding Vivian Maier"
The story of Vivian Maier is one of the most remarkable I've ever come across, either in photography or elsewhere. Though she's now considered one of the best street photographers in history, in her life, she was essentially unknown, and that was by her own doing. It was only after her death that an archive of over 100,000 photographs were discovered in a stroke of luck and her genius was uncovered. This fascinating documentary pieces together as much of her life as it possibly can and also reveals the fact that even those closest to her didn't completely know who she was. It's an excellent look at both an important piece of photographic history and a fascinating human being.
If you're a Russell Crowe fan, you'll enjoy this film from much earlier is his career. In it, he plays a friend to Hugo Weaving, who plays a blind man who obsessively takes photos of the world around him and asks people to describe them to ensure that others are describing the world to him as it really is, a habit that stems from a childhood experience in which he felt his mother lied to him, which left deep emotional scars. The film explores his relationships with those he's close to, with the photographs providing an interesting throughline and basis for the plot.
The 1966 winner of the Cannes Film Festival's highest honor, "Blow-Up" directly influenced the end of the Production Code. Its plot revolves around a London fashion photographer who may have accidentally photographed a murder. It's a fascinating and stylish film worth a watch.
7. "The Killing Fields"
"The Killing Fields" is a 1984 biographical drama based on what New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian guide Dith Pran experienced in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime. The film tells the harrowing true story in which the two became close friends and in which photojournalistic duty mixed with friendship loyalty and put Schanberg in the middle of a moral quandary over whether his desire to cover the events inadvertently put his friend in grave danger. The film received seven Oscar nominations and won three.
8. "War Photographer"
This amazing documentary follows James Nachtwey, one of the most notable war photographers of all time. Nachtwey is the polar opposite of the image you probably have in your head of a war photographer. He's a shy, quiet individual, and yet, he repeatedly places himself in some of the most dangerous places on the planet. This documentary spends two years following him to places like Kosovo and Indonesia and is particularly compelling, as it mounts cameras on Nachtwey's cameras, giving you a look at both how he works in these extreme environments and an idea of just how real the danger he faces is. It's riveting to watch.
9. "The Salt of the Earth"
"The Salt of the Earth" is a biographical documentary directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado that looks at the life and work of Salgado's father, Sebastião Salgado. Salgado is a social documentary photographer whose work on the famine in Africa helped to bring it the wider attention of the world. What's particularly amazing about his work is the way he conveys the people in the many environments in which he photographs, generating global connections of humanity and empathy across many cultures.
10. "City of God"
I included a clip from the movie above instead of the trailer, as the trailer is poorly done and doesn't represent it well. "City of God" is a remarkable film that tells the story of a boy who grows up in a dangerous part of Rio de Janeiro and how he navigates the intense violence of the area to become a photographer. It's an absolutely astounding cinematic achievement and well worth watching.
Do you have any favorite films about photography not on this list? Let me know in the comments!