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 Vivian Maier was seemingly odd, withdrawn, and mercurial, but with an undeniable talent for the visual arts.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.