7 Great Photography Documentaries with a Message

My wife and I were recently watching a documentary about two photographers collaborating on a fascinating project.  It got me wondering about other documentaries about photographers and photography.  Which ones give you more than a biography of the artist?  Which ones raise interesting questions about life, relationships, and our purpose on this planet?  Which ones raise big ideas and challenge the viewer’s thinking?

I set out to find films that met these criteria, were made in the last decade, and were accessible, meaning they were available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes or similar.

Here’s my list, in no particular order, and my reasons for including each.

Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

This is a fascinating tale of a trove of photos found in a storage locker and a previously unknown but immensely talented photographer. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2014 Academy Awards.

In 2007, an auction of unclaimed storage locker contents in Chicago yielded a collection of roughly 30,000 photographs and negatives.  John Maloof, who bought the boxes of photos, wondered who took them and set out to find the identity of the photographer.  The film traces his quest and what he learned about this mysterious artist.  In the process, he tracked down and purchased another 70,000 images and many of the possessions of Vivian Maier.

Maier, who died in 2009, was a nanny to a variety of Chicago families from the 1950s through the 1970s.  She always seemed to have a camera, but hardly ever showed anyone her work.  She was a fine street photographer, with a fabulous eye for composition and detail.  When Maloof began posting her photos online, they attracted enormous interest.

As he learned more about Maier, Maloof interviewed people who, as children, she looked after.  Some describe her as a sort of Mary Poppins character who took them on outings that were great adventures. Others had less favorable memories.  There are suggestions that she had a darker side, a bad temper, perhaps that something was wrong with her, mentally.

Maier was and remained to the end a very private person.  She even used false names when dropping off film for processing.  We don’t know what she thought of herself, except as revealed in some of the photos in which she appears (mostly as reflections and shadows).  It’s hard to understand why, with her apparent love of and talent for photography, she never did anything with it.  No shows, no exhibitions and few people even saw her photos.  Why did she remain a nanny?  Is there any connection in the ordinary life of a nanny (albeit one with the eye of a great artist) and the extraordinary images of the ordinary she captured with her street photography?

How do you separate the artist from her art?  Does one inform or dictate the other?  To what extent were Maier and her choices shaped by the prevailing attitudes towards women during her time?  To what extent is our understanding of and appreciation for her shaped by that of our time?


Faces Places (Visages, villages) (2017)


Faces Places is the film that inspired this article.  It’s a French film about a collaboration between Agnes Varda and JR.  Varda is an 89-year old ball of fire: a photographer, director and a leading member of the French New Wave Cinema.  JR is a 33-year old photographer, street artist, and muralist.  This film shows them traveling the byways of France, visiting small towns, ports, farms, and old industrial areas in which they explore the people, history and culture that made each distinct.  The photographic displays they produce are striking, charming, and surprising.  In a way, they monumentalize the ordinary.  You must see them to appreciate them!

Faces Places uses the medium of photography to explore everyday people, living everyday lives, in unassuming places.  Through the lens, we begin to understand these people, from dockworkers’ wives to farmers to a waitress.  The camera brings out the dignity and meaning in their work and lives.  Yet the photos and the art are ephemeral.  They will fade with time, just as the villages and factories will (and already are) fading and crumbling as the world around them changes.  In a way, the film and the photographs are both recording and reflecting on the passage of time and changing ways of life.

We live in an era obsessed with celebrity and fame, of lionizing power and fortune.  A Facebook and Instagram culture that puts fleeting attention on the here and now.  A people infatuated with images of the most beautiful places and faces.  Faces Places takes a sensitive look at the ordinary, the plebian, and reminds us of the beauty and goodness in the commonplace.

The viewer’s eyes are opened to a new way of seeing and appreciating the beauty in the familiar and common, whether people or landscapes.  You’ll never approach a portrait session in the same way.

Faces Places won the 2017 Golden Eye Documentary Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Academy Awards earlier this year.

Annie Liebovitz

Annie Liebovitz:  Life Through a Lens (2008)

Originally broadcast on PBS American Masters, the film takes us through Liebovitz’s life and development as an artist.  Written and directed by Annie’s younger sister, Barbara, it’s an unusually intimate look into how an inexperienced and naive young woman who talked her way into a photography assignment at Rolling Stone magazine wound up becoming a photographer of celebrities whose work is instantly recognizable.

In watching the documentary, you get many insights into Liebovitz’s thought process as she composes a photograph.  Those are interesting and valuable to aspiring photographers, but what sets this apart from some biographical documentaries is the constant tension between being part of the story and presenting the story; between photographing celebrities and crafting their public image versus being a celebrity, herself.

In her early years as a professional photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, she toured with the Rolling Stones and succumbed to some of the temptations around the hard-partying rock band.  Was she reporting on the band and lifestyle or being consumed by it?  How do you separate the two?  Was her reporting different from Hunter S. Thompson’s?

Later, she moves to Vanity Fair and the celebrity portraits she’s become most known for.  She begins a relationship with Susan Sontag, who urges her to create something more than she had been and to make art that matters.  And she becomes a celebrity, herself.

Through her own reflections, you get a sense of how Liebovitz tries to balance the varied roles of photographer, celebrity, mother and, while Sontag was alive, spouse.  It’s a difficult tightrope to walk.

Where is the line between your work and who you are, if such a line actually exists?  Which side influences the other or is there no separation at all?  How does who you are affect what you see through the viewfinder, how you approach your subject, the breadth of your vision?  What blinders does that put on you and what possibilities aren’t you seeing in your subject or the way you are interpreting it?  What is your photography doing to you?

In an ideal world, our photography would open our eyes to recognizing and appreciating the beauty of fast-changing light, of the varied elements of nature, weather, people and things.  In reality, we are conditioned by our past to only be able to see in certain ways and don’t recognize the artistic possibilities in the unfamiliar.  We keep going back to tried and true methods, poses, lighting and composition.  We forget to keep our eyes and our mind open.

The Mexican Suitcase
Screenshot from The Mexican Suitcase

The Mexican Suitcase (2011)

The Mexican Suitcase is neither a suitcase, nor is it Mexican.  It is, however, a detective story, and an historical investigation, and a photographic journey.

Robert Capa was a well-known photographer who, with Gerda Taro and David “Chim” Seymour, covered the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).  You have probably seen Capa’s famous photo of a soldier at the moment he was shot.  And you may know him from his oft quoted observation “If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough.”

Capa went on to cover World War II, the founding of Israel and the French Indochina war, where he was killed in 1954.  He was one of the cofounders of Magnum Photos.  Some consider him the greatest war photographer of all time.  Taro died during the Spanish Civil War and Chim was killed in Suez in 1956.

During World War II, as the German Army invaded France and closed in on Paris, Capa’s darkroom manager packed up all of the Spanish Civil War negatives and spirited them out of the country for safekeeping, at which time the negatives disappeared and were considered lost.

In 2007, the negatives surfaced in Mexico:  4,500 negatives in three boxes.  The documentary tells the fascinating story of the photos and their journey, as well as the stories of Capa, Taro and Chim.  You’ll see many of the terrific photos by Capra and his friends.

Two things set this documentary apart.

First, is a story of collective memory.  For decades during which Francisco Franco ruled Spain, people didn’t talk about the Civil War.  Even after Franco’s death, people shied away from talking about the war and atrocities committed during the conflict.  The discovery and publication or the images from the “Mexican Suitcase” coincided with and helped instigate a reappraisal of the war and its aftermath.  The photos brought out memories suppressed and hidden for years.

Photography has a fascinating ability to shine light on the past, to be more than a simple recording of a moment frozen in time.  Instead, a photograph can immortalize that moment and imbue it with the power to spark memories and imagination, to stimulate discussion and reflection, to open wounds or heal them.  And, sometimes, a photograph can do all at once.

Second, the journey of the Mexican Suitcase parallels a story of a great migration.  Almost a half million people fled Spain as the Republican government collapsed and Franco’s Fascists took control.  Most went to France and were held in squalid refugee camps, but tens of thousands went to Mexico.  It is a story we don’t typically hear in history classes in school, yet it holds wisdom and cautions for today.

In 1939, most European nations were not particularly interested in taking in people fleeing Spain, so the refugees sat in internment camps in France.  Mexico opened its doors to the Spaniards, in part because of a shared cultural and linguistic affinity.  Today, Europe is once again in the grip of a refugee crisis. People fleeing wars and economic hardship in Syria and Africa, of different cultures, languages, races, and religions are not welcome.  The US is also roiled by immigration issues.

The photographs in the suitcase and their journey can also prompt a deeper and more revealing look at who we are and who we aspire to be.


 McCullin (2012)

Don McCullin may be the greatest war photographer of the latter 20th Century.  Photography became his ticket out of a rough and violent part of London.  His images of the young toughs in London street gangs led to his first assignments as a photographer and, perhaps, help explain his attraction to documenting conflict.

His images are powerful.  They can be gory or angelic. They’re beautifully composed, even if the subject is horrifying.  They provoke emotional reactions.

As a photojournalist, he went anywhere war was being waged.  In the process, he thrived on the adrenaline of combat situations and life and death decisions.  He miraculously survived but, over the years, began to question some of his behavior.  And those questions apply to photographers and photojournalists today.

  • Are you a voyeur or a participant? Are you looking at someone else’s life as if the omniscient observer in a novel?  Is your very presence there affecting the story?
  • Are you documenting or legitimizing? If you are photographing an atrocity or a simple street fight, are you merely recording what’s happening or does your act of photography encourage them?  In documenting awful behaviors and acts, are you somehow legitimizing those actions in the eyes of the perpetrators?
  • Are you documenting an outrage or should you intervene to stop it? Do you photograph an elderly woman limping and struggling to flee danger or do you drop your camera and put your arm around her to help her get away?
  • As you take a photo, what’s the balance between the art of the image and the terror it should convey? Can you honestly do both?

I don’t know that McCullin ever decides.  But it becomes obvious that, as he ages, he gives these questions more thought and is more troubled by what he’s experienced.  In one revealing segment, he says that “even my darkroom is haunted.”

Most of us won’t become war photographers, but we may happen on a fight, or a traffic accident, or fire, or ethical dilemma.  What will we do then?

Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice (2012)

What Ansel Adams did for conservation and national parks, James Balog may be doing for climate change.  Balog and his team are showing the retreat of glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and the US, over periods of years, in dramatic time-lapse movies.

Originally aired as a National Geographic documentary, Chasing Ice won a 2014 Emmy Award for Outstanding Nature Programming, and it’s easy to see why.  The photographs and videography are breathtaking.  Balog’s photos of icebergs, ice caves, and glaciers are stunning and, whatever your opinion on climate change, make the film worth your while.

And the trials and tribulations of creating a system, from scratch, for unattended time lapse photography in harsh environments are enthralling.  Balog and his team stationed cameras in very inhospitable terrain and had more than their share of setbacks, from cameras destroyed by falling rocks, to software glitches, to malfunctions, to Balog’s knee surgery.  In the end, the photographic evidence they compile shows compelling evidence of dramatic changes in glaciers that do not bode well for the earth.

As a visual bonus, the team recorded two huge icebergs calving into the ocean.  Spectacular!

Balog was trained as a scientist, but didn’t want to spend his time in a lab.  Instead, he brought his scientific background and understanding to the field and combined it with his love of photography to visually document one aspect of climate change in a scientific manner.

The film hopes to stimulate conversations about climate change and man’s role in and responsibility for it.  In one scene, Balog thinks about the future, with his children’s generation facing the potentially calamitous effects of climate change and asking “Why didn’t you do something about this when you could?”  His answer is this film.

You don’t have to be a conservation photographer to bring your knowledge and background to your photography.  You can make pretty pictures or compose images that mean something. In twenty years, will your photos mean anything?

Bill Cunningham NY

Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

After so much serious viewing, you’ll need a treat.  For that I recommend Bill Cunningham New York.  The late New York Times photographer was in his 80s when this film was made.  For decades, his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” photo essays in the Times described New York fashion and personalities like nothing else.  Cunningham was a quirky and loveable character, completely devoted to his work, perhaps consumed by it.  At home on the streets and in the salons, Cunningham was a beloved figure with an impressive body of work.

It’s fascinating to hear him describe what he’s looking for as he’s out shooting or his editorial thought process.

He lived alone, but wasn’t lonely.  He didn’t have many possessions or fancy clothes or a big apartment.  But he had everything he needed in the parties and streets and personalities of New York.

It’s a fun and absorbing profile of an unusual and unforgettable photographer.

What’s your favorite photography documentary and why?


8 thoughts on “7 Great Photography Documentaries with a Message”

  1. All awesome choices. I’d include “Chasing Coral” as well. Really stirring indictment of how we treat the planet underwater. What they do with Panasonic GH4s is astounding.

    1. Thanks, Rich. Chasing Coral looks terrific. It’ll be next in my Netflix queue. I see it’s done by the same producers who did Chasing Ice, so I’m looking forward to watching. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Frank: I am a fan of these kinds of docs, so I’m sharing “Deadline Every Second” which profiles the work of photojournalists who work for AP and ” Documenting The Face of America” which PBS aired several years ago. This one profiles Roy Stryker, the man who headed up the unit and hired those who captured the people and conditions during and after The Depression in the US. I have become a big fan of not just Dorothea Lange, but also Horace Bristol and Gordon Parks, among many others.

    1. Thanks for the terrific suggestions, Frank. “Deadline Every Second” look to be widely available for streaming and should appeal to anyone interested in photojournalism and photojournalists.

      Documenting the Face of America seems harder to find. I see it available for purchase as a DVD. If anyone sees where it might be streaming, let us know.

    1. Thanks for reading, Scott. These documentaries were fun or interesting (sometimes both) to watch. There were a few others, not on the list, that definitely weren’t either!

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