Watch Now: Iconic Photography Documentaries
Watching your favourite US photographers at work is a sure-fire way to find creative inspiration. Just watch Garry Winogrand stroll down the street like a shark hunting its prey; or William Eggleston, whose eyes widen when he sees a light bulb others would call boringly banal. To watch these guys is strangely exhilarating and it makes you want to grab your own Leica. For this kind of inspiration, look no further than YouTube, a bottomless resource for photography nerds. There’s a hell of a lot out there, sure, which is why we’ve trawled the site to bring you the best gems. So here they are. Press play on the inspiring photography docs that will have you reaching for your camera the second the credits roll.
The Many Lives of William Klein
Grab a notepad and learn from one of the masters of 20th century photography. The Many Lives of William Klein touches on the photographer’s iconic snap of a kid thrusting a toy gun into the lens, with that comical face that says, “Don’t mess with me, Mister!” It’s perhaps the image that best sums up Klein: bold and brazen, an ever-hungry hunter with an eye for images that instantly grab you. The doc also touches on how Klein helped propel street photography to an acceptable art form in the 50s, as well as his scattershot career in fashion photography.
It’s thrilling to watch Winogrand at work. “When things move I get interested, I know that much,” he says, in this grainy 70s doc. The Bronx-born photographer moved to LA and found it had just as much action as NY, his frames filled with the dizzying buzz and excitement of the street. His hunger for that perfect shot is measured by the sheer amount he shoots: 2000-plus rolls to develop at one point in time, he claims. His work – full of warmth and wit – is much like the character you see here. His burning passion makes you want to hit the streets.
Diane Arbus – Masters of Photography
Arbus was incapable of taking a bland picture. As a chronicler of the weird and wonderful, she photographed nudists, giants, and dwarfs. Because of that, she was often accused of exploiting her subjects. This doc reveals the curiosity and compassion that shaped her most celebrated work. Filmed just a year after her suicide in 1971, it features personal insights from her daughter and sheds light on the key contradiction behind the work: that a cripplingly shy woman who spoke in whispers could take such loud, staggeringly singular pictures.
This 1993 BBC documentary explores Leibovitz’s life, work, and her ever-growing popularity as a celebrity photographer. Best known for her shot of a nude, pregnant Demi Moore (a Vanity Fair cover), or maybe her shot of John and Yoko, him naked, her clothed – Leibovitz is one of the foremost chroniclers of pop culture icons of our times. With insights from Hunter S. Thompson, Mick Jagger, and Leibovitz herself, you hear about her early days as a photojournalist and her ability to discover previously hidden sides of familiar faces. “She was a photographer 25 hours a day,” says Thompson, with whom Leibovitz had a thorny working relationship, “that’s intolerable.”
Jamel Shabazz – The 80s Street photographer
Anyone interested in the birth of hip-hop culture will know the work of Jamel Shabazz. The Brooklyn-born lensman was there, in the 70s and 80s, capturing the emerging NYC tribes: the b-boys, graffiti artists, rappers, and ‘fresh’ kids in boxfresh Adidas kicks. This short doc looks back at that time and the work featured in Shabazz’s seminal book ‘Back in the Days’. See the ease with which he approaches larger-than-life characters and talks to them. Empathy is the key tool in his toolbox. Young photographers can learn a lot from him.
Insanely tiny details, like cracks in the street, are given dramatic weight in the work of William Eggleston. Here, in his hometown of Memphis, you see how the photographer, “a true American pioneer”, is drawn to the banality of the everyday, to light bulbs, vending machines, Coca-Cola bottles. These close-ups of small-town America made him a household name. In this doc, you see how, unlike other photographers, he isn’t interested in documenting as such. He’s not interested in naming the locations in his photos or dating them. To Eggleston, it’s less about documentary, more about visual poetry.
Cindy Sherman: Nobody’s Here But Me
This 1994 BBC doc attempts to pin down the hard-to-pin-down Cindy Sherman, who often appears in her own work, “acting” as recognizable female character tropes in movies – the Hitchcock blonde, the nurse, the wife. She deliberately blurs the line between photographer and subject, which is perhaps why she’s a bit of a mystery. But here the mask is removed and we glimpse the real-life Sherman as she films herself at work in her studio.
Travel back to 1981 and spend a day in NYC with Joel Meyerowitz, whose unbridled enthusiasm is infectious. Try and keep up, as he talks at breakneck pace about knowing where to look, where to stand, and hunting for intimacy in the throngs of people. Watching his almost gymnastic approach to his work is an exhilarating experience. It’s hard to watch this and not hit the streets the very second it’s over.