Photography has been vital in helping us understand and document culture and life. Seeing through the lens of a camera is a unique way of perceiving, experiencing, and seeing the world around us. It’s played a critical role in industries such as journalism, fashion, advertising, marketing, and design.
From the lives of celebrities to the deepest shadows of the rain forests, photography offers a window into the unique perspective of the photographer and framing of the captured subjects.
These 20 documentaries and videos on the art of photography are sure to inspire you to see the art form in a new light. And maybe even spark some inspiration for your next creative project.
1. Finding Vivian Maier
The mysterious photographer lived a very private life. Unbeknownst to her employers, Vivian Maier spent her free time taking hundreds of thousands of photographs. Maier photographed subjects in everyday environments, showing the beauty of the urban landscape and beyond. But Vivian Maier never showed anyone her photos while she was alive.
This documentary takes viewers through the journey of Maier’s artistic perspective. The film covers the posthumous fame of a great photographer whose work may have gone unrecognized at the time but now will live on in the history of photography.
2. The History of Photography in 5 Minutes
As you’re diving into this list of the best photography documentaries, it could be worth taking 5 minutes for a history lesson. This short video gives an overview of the history of photography, from early explorations of camera obscura to Daguerreotypes to iPhones and everything in between.
Wondering how cameras work? Why Kodak went bankrupt? Or get some context into the history behind the thousands of photos on your phone? Check it out on YouTube here.
3. Bill Cunningham New York
“The best fashion show is definitely on the streets.” – Bill Cunningham
Bill Cunningham was a fashion photographer who ushered in the era of “street style”. His candid photographs in the streets of New York documented changing trends across decades of New York fashion.
This documentary by Richard Press looks at the impact that this fascinating American photographer had on fashion photography. The film also takes a deeper look at the photographer’s philosophy on life and living in New York society. Cunningham chose to spend most of his time in his studio without ever really enjoying the profits of his wildly successful career.
Watch the full film on AppleTV.
4. In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams: A Documentary
Very few photographers are better known than Ansel Adams, perhaps the most influential landscape photographer – ever. While several documentaries on Ansel Adams’ work have been produced, this film was created in 2018 about the life and work of the influential artist.
The documentary film covers how Adams worked during a time when point-and-shoot cameras were a distant dream. At the time, photography equipment used to capture the world as he experienced it was challenging and unreliable. Yet, the photographer was able to create breathtaking images of the American landscape.
5. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
Mapplethorpe’s power as an artist and photographer was in getting a reaction out of people – especially those offended by his controversial (at the time) – and often nude – photographic works. He worked in black and white imagery and was most interested in aspects of the human condition existing on the fringe of society.
This documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato covers the artist’s works as well as his difficult life, estrangement from his family, and controversial position in America. (And yes, this one is NSFW).
Watch or buy the full film here.
6. Lomography: Shoot from the Hip
Lomography holds a special place in the history of photography. The Russian-designed Lomo Camera movement in the 1990s encouraged people to capture everyday moments and mundane objects throughout the day. Any hipster shopping at Urban Outfitters in the early 2000’s probably still owns one of these. Some even think the camera saved the analog film industry from being completely lost to digital.
This film covers the era that brought both amateur and professional photographers a compact and mobile option for taking vibrant, fun-filled pictures. Having a camera constantly in the palm of your hand changes the way you see the world – and the results of the Lomo movement are proof of that.
“It’s communication with pictures. It brings people together.”
7. Smash His Camera
Filmmaker Leon Gast brought to light the story behind paparazzi photography Ron Galella. While his images became iconic documentation of Hollywood and celebrities, his methods were not always ethical.
When Jackie Kennedy saw Galella hiding in a park to get a close-up, she said to her security, “Smash his camera!”
This documentary covers the work of the celebrity photographer who saw no harm in going to any lengths to get the perfect shot. He would hide behind trees, surprise actors at restaurants, and shamelessly do whatever was necessary.
Watch the full documentary here.
8. The Colourful Mr. Eggleston
William Eggelston is credited with popularizing the use of color in art photography. His unique take on environments and subjects led to an interesting collection of works that portray the banal oddities of Americana.
Eggleston talks about his interesting personal discipline of taking only one photograph of any one object. That way, he says, he never has to choose which frame is the “best”. Sometimes, setting constraints on creative work can be the perfect catapult to avoid second-guessing yourself and creating something amazing.
This documentary takes fans and photographers inside the life and mind of the formerly reclusive American artist. It’s a must-see for anyone who’s inspired to capture the everyday mundane.
Watch the full film here on Vimeo.
9. National Geographic: Search for the Afghan Girl
In June of 1985, a photograph by Steve McCurry was chosen for the cover of National Geographic. The image was a portrait of a 12-year-old Afghan girl outside of a refugee camp in Pakistan. The girl’s expressive and piercing eyes captured the attention of the world, and it remains one of the most iconic photos ever taken.
In this documentary, a NatGeo team of historians and journalists search for the subject who had become known as the Afghan Girl, almost two decades later. The photo and subsequent search inspired a generation of photojournalists and later brought critical aid to the community of the now-grown Sharbat Gula, otherwise known as “The Afghan Girl”.
More of the full documentary covering the team’s search is available to watch here.
10. Evolution & Decline of Digital Cameras 1971 – 2020
Although digital photography began in the late 1950s, it took years before digital cameras were mass-produced for the average photographer. In 1999, we got the first camera phone – a bulky mobile that took grainy, noisy pictures.
This video covers the rise and fall of digital photography. While digital photos changed the way we thought about documenting life, many professional photographers are making a shift back to analog. The back-to-basics movement is appreciated by some photographers as it requires more skill and allows for different kinds of creativity.
11. Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens
Annie Leibovitz’s work exists in a completely different class from anything seen before. Through a unique method of exposure and composition, Annie Leibovitz is able to create art through portraiture. To be photographed by her is an honor that only the most elite or famous can experience.
Now, anyone can learn from one of the best. Annie Leibovitz offers a Masterclass in photography to teach everything she knows about portraiture and photography.
Check out Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens on Apple TV or Amazon Prime.
12. Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light
For Avedon, photography requires being in touch with the inner self. His work is about dealing with things that are sometimes too difficult to face without the use of art.
His work with celebrities in the 70s documented a pivotal moment in fashion. In his portraits, there’s a juxtaposition of beauty and sorrow. And in capturing movements as they happen – Avedon compares photography to dancing.
This documentary, produced by American Masters, looks at Avedon’s work and some of his iconic images that have become well known – as well as his journey from observer to creator.
“By photographing what I was interested in, I laid the ghost. It got it out of my system and into the page.”
13. Brian Lowe: Advertising Photography
Brian Lowe is an important figure in advertising photography and magazine editorial. He’s spent his career innovating in sports and celebrity photography, winning awards for his high-energy minimalism.
Lowe has an interesting technique of using a slower shutter speed for fast movement photography so that his shots have to be more intentional and planned.
This video is part of a public lecture series. You can hear Brian Lowe talk about his motivations for becoming a photographer and why he eventually got into the advertising photography industry.
14. Monk with a Camera
Nicky Vreeland claims that when renouncing his former life as an elite socialite, he tried hard to give up photography. But taking photographs and making art were ingrained in who he was. And ultimately, it was his skills as a photographer that allowed his newfound life and passion to flourish.
This documentary covers the life of a photographer born into the industry and then took a sharp turn. He went from a lavish lifestyle photographing the rich and famous to using his talents to help rebuild Tibetan monasteries.
Buy or rent the full documentary on YouTube.
15. The Many Lives of William Klein
From Vogue to cult films, William Klein’s career in photography spanned not only decades but genres and mediums. In some of his iconic work, he tried things that were previously unheard of, such as painting over plastic films and layering on photographs. Klein also used the city of New York as a subject, compositing images of women in haute couture with innovative props such as mirrors.
This is just one of many documentaries and videos covering the work of William Klein.
“Photography is the truth, if it’s being handled by a truthful person.”
For decades, Don McCullin was on the ground in some of the most devastating wars of human history. He took photographs that documented these humanitarian disasters in hopes of bringing awareness to a global audience. Of photographing war, the photographer said: “You have a moral sense of purpose and duty… you want to take this picture, and you want to stop it.”
Another video, “The Stillness of Life”, covers another phase of McCullen’s work. It covers the landscape work that often took him out into the fields in the early hours of the morning, waiting for the perfect moment that the sky would “come alive” to collaborate with his camera.
Watch the full film on Apple TV.
17. Don’t Blink: Robert Frank
Before his death in 2019, New York Times called him the most influential living photographer.
The work of Swiss photographer Robert Frank was groundbreaking, and his life was one for the books. One of his most acclaimed works was a book called The Americans, which captured the nation through an outsider’s perspective.
Don’t Blink is a documentary created by Frank’s long-time collaborator, Laura Isreal. This documentary is a great watch for anyone interested in the life and work of a photographer who spent his years fully immersed in his craft, taking the giant leap of reinventing himself in a new country.
Frank’s advice for up-and-coming photographers? “Keep your eyes open.”
Watch the full film on Apple TV.
18. Chasing Ice
Environmental photographer James Balog was part of a team traveling in the Arctic when his iconic work changed the future of what photojournalism is capable of accomplishing.
“There’s a powerful piece of history that’s unfolding in these pictures.”
Skeptics, be warned, this documentary contains Balog’s photographic evidence of the changing natural landscape of planet Earth. His time-lapse photography captured records of diminishing ice glaciers – depicting the undeniable evidence of global warming.
Balog’s Arctic works are important for the well-being of the planet. They are also a beautiful and powerful visual depiction of our – and our planet’s – growing fragility. Above all, it highlights how we can – and must – use art to share stories to effectuate positive change.
Steam the full film on Apple TV or Google Play here.
19. National Geographic: The Hunt for the Perfect Shot
As a photographer, how much of your job relies on patience? In wildlife photography, the key is waiting (sometimes hours or days) for the perfect shot. We can’t, after all, tell bison, tigers, or elephants how and when to pose for their close-up.
This short film covers wildlife photographer Michel d’Oultremont as he explains how he patiently waits for his in-frame moments of animals in the wild. It’s all worth it, he says, for that intense rush that comes from capturing the perfect shot.
The film is an inspiration for photographers interested in combining the beauty of nature with a skilled composition of environment and light. And for the rest of us – a lesson in patience and dedication.
20. 8 Important Composition Tips for Better Photos
What’s the key to great photography?
This video covers composition in photography. Lines, ratios, geometry, and grids – there’s a lot to learn! Here are professional photographer Jamie Windsor’s 8 simple tips for better composition in your photographs.
The Best Must-Watch Documentaries on the Art of Photography
It’s evident that the works of great photographers have impacted our perception of the world around us. From the baby steps of analog photography to capturing war and climate change, photography, and the moments it captures, are an important part of human history. We hope these photography documentaries spark some creative ideas for your own projects – whichever field you’ve chosen.
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