25 Photography Documentaries You Cannot Miss
In order to be the best, you must learn from the best. Your skills are not only built on the field, but also in the time you spend browsing your favorite photography website, navigating social media in search of inspiration, and learning more about iconic figures in the history of photography.
Being able to understand the stories behind the images which made you fall in love with photography, as well as the passionate person that created them, will have an unparalleled effect on your own work.
These 25 photography documentaries will help you do just that, each of them focusing on specific iconic photographers or stories. They are available on a wide range of platforms, from BBC and DVD to Netflix and YouTube.
Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens
Annie Leibovitz is one of the most well known names in portrait photography. A long list of rock stars, politicians, actors and supermodels, such as John Lennon, Queen Elizabeth II, Angelina Jolie, Kendrick Lamar, and Meryl Streep have been captured by Leibovitz’ unique style. In this documentary, we get to know who the person behind the camera is, and how her artistic self-realization evolved through her life - from childhood to becoming a photography icon.
Bill Cunningham New York
This documentary follows the steps of the late New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. For over half a century he cycled the streets of New York in search of people with unique fashion styles. Known for his street photography approach to fashion and his love for bright colors and extravagant accessories, Cunnigham was a perfectionist who took part in every step of the life of his work, from clicking the shutter to preparing the layout for printing.
Finding Vivian Maier
It’s not unheard of for artists to be only truly valued after their death. However, it is quite rare for their work to be completely unknown throughout their entire life. Such is the case of Vivian Maier, a nanny who dedicated most of her free time to street portraiture and is now considered one of the most accomplished street photographers of all times. After Maier’s passing, the director of this documentary came across a box of negatives shot by her and asked the Internet to help him know more about this mysterious photographer.
Sir Don McCullin is commonly referred to as the greatest war photographer alive. His photojournalism career began with the Cyprus war in 1964, and took him all over the world to documentate ecological and man-made catastrophes, with a strong focus on warfare. Many see McCullin as one of the biggest referents of today’s photojournalists. This documentary, explores his life and work, as well as the changes in photojournalism through his photography career.
The Mexican Suitcase
In 2007, three boxes containing 4,500 negatives shot by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour during the Spanish Civil War were found in a closet in Mexico City. This documentary follows the journey of these images across the Atlantic Ocean from their disappearance at the end of World War II to their rediscovery. Furthermore, the film also shows how Spain reflects on those darker times and the role Mexico played in the Spanish Republic period.
Smash His Camera
Paparazzi work in one of the most well-known and least appreciated types of photography. This film explores the complex issues of this profession through the story of renowned paparazzo Ron Galella. At some point during his long career, Galella’s outstanding images took him from being one of the most despised photographers to a beloved pop-culture idol.
National Geographic Search for the Afghan Girl
In June 1985, National Geographic published their most famous cover to date: The Afghan Girl. It featured a portrait of Sharbat Gula, a young Afghan refugee with piercing sea green eyes that became the face of conflict and a symbol of resistance. This documentary follows photographer Steve McCurry as he took off to search for his most well-known subject nearly two decades after their first and only encounter.
James Nachtwey is widely considered one of the greatest contemporary war photographers, and one of the best in history. This photography documentary follows his story across the world, including post war Kosovo, Jakarta, the West Bank, Germany, and South Africa. Furthermore, the film explores the levels of involvement journalists should reach on the field, as well as how important is it to overcome barriers and create real human connections.
Pictures from a Revolution
In the early 1980s, Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas published one of her most renowned photo series, "Nicaragua, June 1978 to July 1979," documenting the Sandinista revolution. A decade later, she returned to Central America to look for the people she photographed during the war. This documentary offers a look at the stories behind iconic photographs, inviting viewers to reflect on the social struggles tied to armed conflicts.
Don't Blink - Robert Frank
This film is a portrait of photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank’s life and work, revolving primarily around the making of his book “The Americans.” In this piece of work, the Swiss creator offered a fresh outsider’s view of American society in the first half of the 20th century. The now nonagenarian Frank is considered a revolutionary figure in both photography and independent film.
Born Into Brothels
Director and producer Zana Briski went to Kolakta’s red light district to photograph prostitutes. During her time in the West Bengal capital, Briski befriended the prostitute’s children and offered to teach them some photography skills in exchange for being allowed to photograph their mothers. Much of the children’s imagery is included in this photography documentary, depicting life in the red light district through the vision of often overlooked kids who never got the chance to simply just be kids.
The Salt of the Earth
Sebastião Salgado has spent most of his life travelling the world capturing hidden corners where deprived societies live. His work has helped bring worldwide attention to often ignored issues such as famine and refugee camps. The documentary follows Salgado’s career through four decades - from the moment he discovers his love for photography to his travels in over 120 countries.
Helmut Newton: Frames from the Edge
This photography documentary follows renowned fashion photographer Helmut Newton on photoshoots from Los Angeles to Monte Carlo. Throughout the film, we are privy to Newton’s conversations with models and get a first row into the making of groundbreaking cover images.
To this day, many are still skeptical about climate change despite the overwhelming amount of science-backed academic research. Environmental photographer James Balog was once among them, but an expedition to collect data on the seasonal changes of glaciers known as “Extreme Ice Survey” quickly changed his mind. This film shows the results of this expedition and the devastating effects climate change already has across the northern regions of our planet.
Tales by Light
This is not a photography documentary, but rather a series of documentaries focused on photographers and filmmakers who offer a unique perspective of the world. Netflix’s Tales by Light currently has three seasons and a total of 12 episodes. Each instalment of the show focuses on specific photographers and topics, as they explore little-known areas of the world.
Best photography documentaries on YouTube
Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light
The work of Richard Avedon played an incredible part in the definition of America’s style, beauty and culture in the first half of the 20th century. Mixing biographical information, his portfolio, and his own commentary over the footage, the film is a sneak peak into the life of one of the most influential and innovative fashion photographers.
Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film
It’s almost impossible to think about landscape photography without visualizing the work of Ansel Adams. This documentary examines the inspirations and goals of Adams’ images, creating a mesmerizing retrospective of his career shot in the same landscapes of his most iconic photos.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment
In short of 20 minutes, this simple photography documentary will offer you great insight into one of the most iconic figures in the history of this discipline. The short film shows a selection of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s best work, as we hear him talk about his motivations and aspirations.
The Colourful Mr Eggleston
Documentary photographer William Eggleston had a huge influence in the recognition of color photography as a legitimate artistic medium. In a time where professionals refused to use color film, Eggleston dragged color into the world of fine art photography through a unique visual style that is still seen as a referent today.
The Many Lives of William Klein
William Klein paved the road for raw, up-close street photography. While many cameramen took on the streets before him, Klein’s work is significantly more personal and genuine. This documentary was shot in anticipation of Klein’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, and it includes personal interviews and commentaries, as well as a look inside his studio.
Edward Weston: The Photographer
Many consider Edward Weston the greatest American photographer of his generation. His images helped shape the next stage of photography, which until then was seen as an addendum to other arts. Over more than four decades, Weston captured a vast range of subjects, from landscapes and nudes to portraits and parodies.
Lomography – Shoot from the Hip
This documentary follows the development of the Lomography movement, which aims to capture spontaneous scenes in a unique photography style. Originally created as an accessible film camera in Soviet-era Leningrad, Lomo cameras have become an incredibly popular type of photography of their own.
Join a Wildlife Photographer on the Hunt for the Perfect Shot
This really short photography documentary follows Michel d’Oultremont on a two-day wait to capture an outstanding shot of a bison. It serves as the perfect example of the roles passion, patience, and determination play in becoming a photographer.
Dorothea Lange – An American Odyssey
When it comes to American documentary photography, Dorothea Lange is one of the first names that come to mind. She was one of the most iconic photographers of The Great Depression, and her “Migrant Mother” portrait became an image referent for one of the darkest times ever seen in the United States.
National Geographic – The Photographers
Through its long history, National Geographic has established itself as one of the main referents for travel, documentary, and wildlife photographers all over the world. In this documentary, we get to hear the raw behind the scenes experiences of some of the most well-known photographers who have worked for the magazine.
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Editor of the Wix Photography Blog