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Photography Documentaries I’ve Liked
By David Cobb
It’s been a long time since the days of the boring and staid documentary. We’re now in the “Golden Age” of this genre, and there have been a number of good photography documentaries released over the past few years. I find that sometimes it’s difficult to make a decision on a film when I love the images, but the quality of the documentary is not great. (Maybe there are poor production values, or the film needed an editor, or it’s just not that interesting. When that happens, I prefer to look at a book of the photographer’s images.)
All the films on this list are easily accessible for viewing, and for the purposes of this list I haven’t included any television series. What follows are a few photography documentaries that I’ve liked from the many I’ve watched.
- The Salt of the Earth – (2014, Director Wim Wenders) This film relives the career of Sebastiao Salgado and covers his major body of work and exhibitions. From the opening scene of images at the gold mines of Serra Pelada to his work on his most recent project Genesis, the film leaves no doubt that Salgado is one of the greatest photographers ever.
- What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann – (2005, Director Steven Cantor) An exploration into the creative mind of an artist. Sally Mann discusses her work through her successes, failures, her influences, and disappointments. There is something for every photographer to relate to in this film.
- Finding Vivian Maier – (2013, Directors John Maloof, Charlie Siskel) Possibly the most famous of all films on this list, Finding Vivian Maier is a movie about a woman who blended in and surreptitiously photographed non-stop for years with no one really knowing she was amassing a large catalogue of images. After her death her work was recently discovered, and the documentary pieces together her life from clues, photographs, and conversations with (now adult) children she looked after while fulfilling her job as a nanny. Her life is a bit of a mystery, but her outstanding photographic work shines a light into her spirit.
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – (2012, Director Alison Klayman) Ai Weiwei is a multi-media artist and dissident with homes in the U.S. and China. He’s known in photography for his “giving the finger” images and also his selfies. He might be described as Warhol, Picasso, Calder, and Banksy, rolled into one. This isn’t truly a photography documentary, but it’s fascinating and thought-provoking.
- Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe – (2007, Director James Crump) A thoughtful film which brings to life the professional and personal relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and his benefactor Sam Wagstaff.
- Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters – (2012, Director Ben Shapiro) The incredible production value, difficulty, and creativity of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs is on display in this mesmerizing documentary. The filming follows him during his work on his Beneath the Roses concept.
- Meru – (2015, Jimmy Chin, Chai Vasarhelyi) Ok, it’s not really a photography documentary, but photographer and videographer Jimmy Chin does a spectacular job of filming this first ascent. Teamed with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, the climb of the imposing shark fin of India’s Mount Meru gave me the willies just watching. There is a section of this film which showcases some of the climbing photography techniques that Jimmy Chin uses when on assignment.
- War Photographer – (2001, Director Christian Frei) A documentary of photojournalist James Nachtwey who lets his images do the talking. He’s won numerous awards and the highest honors in his profession, and this documentary captures him on assignment in Kosovo, Indonesia, Africa, and the West Bank. The film opens with an adage from Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and Nachtwey lives by these words. His photographic records of war, famine, and poverty are devastating, and his philosophy on why he’s a war photographer is fascinating.
- Bill Cunningham New York – (2010, Director Richard Press) A delightful film which follows photographer Bill Cunningham snapping fashion images on the streets of New York. Cunningham carries this documentary with his outlook on life, simple lifestyle, fashion eye, dedication, and his infectious exuberance. If you’re ever down in the dumps or want to get out of a photography rut, this film is a dandy pick-me-up.
- Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens – (2008, Director Barbara Leibovitz) This study in the life and career of Annie Leibovitz from her early days at the Rolling Stone to her work for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and her more personal work shows that even someone at the top of the photography world can still make mistakes and grow from them. Her work is astounding and her creative passion is an inspiration. The film is less in-depth than I would have liked, as some major portions of her life are discussed only on the surface.
- Inside Out: The People’s Art Project – (2013, Alastair Siddons) Street photographer JR takes his TED Talks Prize and gives it back to the people to create their own art. His world photography project helps humanize the disenfranchised from Pakistan to South Dakota as they produce giant portraits to post on the streets. They can no longer be ignored and must be seen, as they create their own power through imagery. The film is truly an inspiration to witness the influence of photography changing the common man on the street.
If there are other films you think I might be leaving off this list, let me know. Fellow Photo Cascadia members Adrian Klein and Erin Babnik shared films they liked such as Salt and The Quest for Inspiration. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’m on the lookout for these two. I hope you enjoy the films I’ve listed; many are available on Netflix so they’re easy to find and most have shorter run times. Now curl up with a bowl of popcorn and learn from the masters.
“The Bang Bang Club”
Film review by David Cobb
It’s not often that films are made about photographers, and when they are they’re usually documentaries. There are a few exceptions: In the early 2000s “City of God” dealt with the issue of photography in a peripheral manner, and so did the films “Proof” and “High Art” in the 1990s. Of course the 60’s classic “Blow Up” coupled photography with a possible crime and the exploration of what a photographer really captured on film.
With the 2011 release of the “Bang Bang Club” (based on the book of the same name by Marinovich and Silva), photography is in the forefront of a film that follows the lives of four photographers during the crisis of apartheid in South Africa. Two of the photographers Kevin Carter and Greg Marinovich, each won the Pulitzer Prize for their photography. (Carter, who took the mind-searing image of the vulture waiting for the child to die in the Sudan, committed suicide 14 months after his award.) Ken Oosterbroek was awarded the Ilford Press Photographer of the Year in ’89 and ’94 and was killed in action during 1994. Co-author Joao Silva was awarded the World Press Photo and lost his legs to a land mine in 2010 while photographing in Afghanistan.
The film (directed by Steven Silver) recounts the brutal violence and tumult of apartheid in the early 90s. Newbie Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe) joins a group of photographers working for The Star newspaper and is offered a freelance job after he takes some stunning images of Zulu warriors from a Soweto township. The group is later named the “Bang Bang Club” after venturing time and again into war-torn areas of South Africa. The team become friends and develop a strong bond, making them all better photographers and at the same time creating a certain level of mystique.
Their lives as photojournalists stay in the gray area and the film raises questions about the moral dilemmas of photo journalism. Are the photographers paparazzi, hyenas, heroes, or just doing their job? It also asks the question of when and if a photojournalist should help those in harm’s way. I started wondering to myself just how far I would go for a photo if I was in their shoes. As this group of photographers snaps the mayhem and murder of the daily life around them, they also struggle with the evil they witness in their lives. In one scene, Marinovich’s girlfriend and editor has to hold a lamp for illumination while he photographs a dead child, depicting just how desensitized to death he has become. The movie also captures the price paid by those they love and the people who surround their unsettled lives. A personal toll is taken on the photographers as they live with the danger of their jobs.
The “Bang Bang Club” is a powerful look at historical events and of the people who covered them. It’s well acted throughout and lead Phillippe is solid as usual. If you’re interested in photography and what it takes shoot under extreme duress, this film will be of interest to you. A trailer follows below.