Five of the Best Photography Films Ever Made

Stimulate your creativity and occupy your lazy indoor days with these 5 groundbreaking documentaries surrounding photography

Bill Cunningham. Image from nytimes.com
Bill Cunningham. Image from nytimes.com

Are you stuck in a creative rut?
Have you finished that new Netflix series about who killed the nun?
Is it too hot for you to go outside?
Do you like photography?

If you’ve answered yes to two or more of these questions, then this post is for you. Here to stimulate your creativity, help fill your brain with useful television and occupy your lazy indoor days are five of our favourite documentaries surrounding photography.

Bill Cunningham New York

Documenting the daily life of the man “we all get dressed for”, “Bill Cunningham New York” is a cheery profile of one of the first and most celebrated street-fashion photographers. Darting through crowds of often impeccably, mainly eclectically dressed women, Bill Cunningham moves like a war photographer in his urban setting. Believing that the best fashion show is on the street, nothing prevents him from getting his shot, and the team at Zeitgeist Films are there to intently record his drive and passion. Allowing the documentary crew to observe as he snaps his newest trend predictions for The New York Times, photographs at high-end society events and sits at the front row during Paris Fashion Week, it is Cunningham’s likeable character as much as his skill that makes this biopic really stand out. Whether it’s in his jovial interactions with other members of The Times’ staff, his uncontainable excitement when reflecting on his earliest work at Detail Magazine, the unimportance he places in materialism and money or the flattering words from the likes of Anna Wintour and Editta Sherman, this veteran’s modesty and genuine love for his craft, women and their clothes makes this one of the most charming photography documentaries you can watch.

Contacts, Vol.2: Nan Goldin

Giving its audience an insight into the artistic approach of a selection of contemporary photographers, these 10 to 15 minute-long shorts serve as a kind of visual diary for the featured artists. Each episode focuses on one particular photographer, and traces the development of their career through a personal commentary and a showreel of their contact sheets, proofs and prints. Chronicling the work of street photographers such as William Klein, the more fashion based photojournalism of Helmut Newton and the conceptual approach of Hiroshi Sugimoto, the series covers a multitude of photographic styles, techniques and working methods. Of the three volumes, one to definitely check out is the piece on Nan Goldin. The uncompromising photographer takes her audience with her on a trip down memory lane, as she details her earliest life experiences and how they led her to become “obsessed with taking pictures”. Goldin talks us through her time at the free school she attended as a teenager, explains the roots of her fascination with drag queens, recounts introductions to pivotal figures in her work and recalls how certain instances in her life changed her idea and style of photography. The narrative is accompanied by relevant photographs; rarely seen black and white portraits of Goldin’s first subject David Armstrong, personal self-portraits of her time in hospital and her documentation of the third gender – all of which become all the more raw and intimate as we learn the stories behind them.

McCullin

Shot on 16mm film in order to compliment the analogue photography of which the film focuses, McCullin is homage to potentially the greatest living war photographer – Donald McCullin. The man behind the name narrates the entire documentary, and speaks candidly and matter-of-factly of his experiences on the working class streets of east London, in the war-riddled countries of Lebanon, Cyprus and Northern Ireland and the famine-struck republic of Biafra. Choosing a selection of images that best illustrate his 30-year career in the field, the photographer accompanies each with an anecdote, which mainly stress the importance he places on human dignity and his contempt for sensationalist and exploitative journalism. Visibly choking at some parts of his monologue, McCullin often brings his own ethics into question when discussing a particular war or event, clearly grappling with his decision to cover such tragedies. Speaking frankly about his work and the impact war has had on his life, McCullin also discusses the changes in publishing and editorial freedom since he began working for the Observer in the 1960s. Essentially a commentary on the history of photojournalism, this doc illustrates the importance of photography in reportage during a time where editorial freedom for newspapers allowed for the most accurate of coverage.

Finding Vivian Maier

This 2013 documentary chronicles the life and work of Vivian Maier – a mysterious nanny who took her secret obsession with photographing people on the streets to the grave. Stumbling across a large box of negatives by chance at an auction in Chicago, John Maloof – who was researching images for a book he was writing at the time – paid just 380 dollars for his first Vivian Maier haul. Upon realising the potential behind the unprinted work, he dedicated himself to building up his collection. As he unravelled the enigma of Vivian, he amassed a staggering 100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of undeveloped colour film, 2,000 rolls of undeveloped black and white film and over 100 movies in 8mm and 16mm formats. Maloof then archived the work and turned his attention to finding out exactly who the woman behind the lens was, tracking down Maier’s last known address via an online obituary announcing her then recent death. Through interviewing the elusive figure’s various acquaintances, trawling through possessions found in her rented storage unit and analysing her prints with some of photography’s biggest names, Maloof uncovers the story of the bicycle-riding, Rolleiflex-toting, boot-wearing 6-foot carer through his film. His exposé fulfils his ambition of “putting her in the history books” and brings to light the underexposed talent of the “paradoxical”, “bold” and “eccentric” creative.

Born into Brothels

A little different from the previous profiles of prolific photographers, Born Into Brothels shows the streets, back alleys and parlours of Kolkata’s red light district through the lenses of the children who live there. The film tells of how Zana Briski, a British documentary photographer who initially travelled to India to document prostitutes, uses her skills to teach the children of her original subjects how to use cameras. She assigns each child a modest 35mm point and shoot, and holds edit meetings in which the children discuss the work they have made throughout the week. By giving them an outlet and an education in a trade, Briski aims to keep the children off the streets and prevent their lives from also being tarnished by their countries’ prominent sex trade. Each of the eight children in the class is documented in their own segment of the film, where their family lives and personalities are dissected as much as their film rolls. We meet an array of characters – the cheeky Puja, who never shies away from a good street snap, the timid Suchitra, coming from a family of women working the line and the naturally gifted Avijit, who’s talent awarded him a place to study photography at NYU prior to the documentaries airing. Sometimes uplifting, often dejecting, this heartfelt story chronicling absolute poverty and very little life opportunity illustrates the power of art, the value of nurturing creativity and the impact of one person and one idea.

Jana Sterbak
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