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Documentary films are an incredible way to explore a subject in great depth giving the audience the opportunity to immerse themselves in the issues being presented. The documentary genre is as old as photography itself with some of the earliest pioneers using their cameras to explore the explosive cultural and social issues of their time, as well as recording the world around them for posterity.
Documentary – One of the Most Popular and Wide Reaching Genres of Film.
We’ve all watched and enjoyed documentaries but exactly is one? A documentary is made up of non fiction images that are cut together to tell a story, record events for historical reasons or simply to allow the audience to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Documentaries about photography and the photographers behind the camera are a unique source of information that gives us, as the viewers, an unparalleled glimpse into their lives and the way they work.
Documentaries have a special place in the world of film because no matter what the subject is the audience will walk away having learnt something new. This gives the viewers new insights and perspectives which broadens their worldview and can provide sparks of inspiration that cannot be found anywhere else!
5 Photography Documentaries That You Must See.
The following are the 5 best
Finding Vivian Maier
This documentary is about the bizarre true story of a man who buys a trunk that has more than 100,000 negatives in it. In the trunk he discovers that he has accidentally stumbled across the photo negatives of one of the greatest unknown street photographers of all time – Vivian Maier!
Apart from her outstanding photography the unusual thing about Vivian Maier was that she actively hid her work during her lifetime and never so much as put on an exhibition. Professionally, she worked as a nanny in Chicago and kept her life as a photographer a complete secret. She was, by all accounts though, an eccentric who was highly talented with an eye for the perfect natural shot.
Vivian Maier who lived between 1926-2009, took more than 150,000 photos which mainly focused on the architecture and the people of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. She also travelled around the world taking photos although the main body of her work was based in the USA.
Her photos were only discovered after her death and so she never knew what an impact it has had on photographers and audiences since her death. The first time her works were published for the world to see was in 2008 when John Maloof, a Chicago based collector, uploaded a selection of her photos to Flickr. The photos went viral almost immediately and since then they have been exhibited all over the world.
This is a documentary that explores the life and times of Vivian Maier who was as talented as she was private and withdrawn. The documentary has the elements of a mystery thriller in parts but it’s also a testament to the many unknown talents who work away quietly at their passion without any acclaim for doing so; taking photographs for the sheer love of it!
Photojournalism and war photography have changed the way we see the world, giving the public a glimpse into the hidden tragedies and stories that have shaped our society and cultures. Before the invention of the camera war zones were completely inaccessible to the public gaze and the horrors of war could never be questioned but since the early days of photography, war photojournalism has played an important part in our perceptions of conflict.
Don McCullin was one of the greatest war photographers and photojournalists of his time and this documentary examines the man and his work. Don McCullin is a British born photographer who served in the military during the Suez crisis of 1956 where he was a photographer’s assistant. He later applied to become a photographer for the Royal Air Force but after failing the exams he spent the rest of his service working in the Dark Room.
After leaving the army he was forced to pawn his camera to pay some bills although he eventually bought it back after some difficulties. In 1958 he took a photograph of a famous London gang, called the ‘Guvnors’, posing in a building that had been bombed during WW2 and a decade later still stood in disrepair. The photo was published in the Observer newspaper and helped McCullin get his first work as a professional photographer.
McCullin went on to work for the Sunday Times, one of the UK’s top newspapers, and between 1966 and 1984 he was their foreign correspondent taking photos in the war zones of Biafra, Vietnam and Northern Ireland. He also documented the AIDS crisis in Africa and captured the ecological fall out of modern industry around the world.
This documentary tells the story of his life and work but it also spends time examining the moral dilemmas that McCullin faced on his life threatening journey photographing some of the most dangerous places in the 20th century.
Annie Leibovitz : Life Through A Lens
Annie Leibovitz is one of the most prolific modern portrait photographers who has shot every star from John Lennon to Keith Richards, the Obama family to Elizabeth II, Queen of England!
Her monumental career saw her working with the world’s top publications including Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Annie Leibovitz lived in the fast lane, rubbing shoulders with the A-listers and as a result she has some amazing stories to tell, including that she took a polaroid photo of John Lennon just hours before his tragic murder!
This documentary, directed by Barbara Leibovitz, takes an in-depth and intimate look at the person behind the camera and gives the audience an interesting insight into how she rose to the heights of the fashion industry and portrait photography.
The Picture of His Life
This visual treat follows the work of the famous underwater photographer Amos Nachoum as he seeks to achieve a lifelong dream – to take a photograph of a polar bear under the water!
Amos Nachoum has been an underwater wildlife photographer for most of his working life and has led expeditions all over the world for individuals as well as institutions like Apple and IBM. He has also worked with the Discovery Channel, Disney and Colombia Pictures.
His photography takes a close up look at life beneath the waves and has helped to fuel a world wide resurgence in conservation and the protection of nature, wherever it may be. Some of his most famous work captures Great White Sharks and Killer Whales in the wild although he has photographed pretty much everything that lives under the sea!
Throughout the course of his remarkable career his photos have appeared in the National Geographic, New York Times, Life and Der Spiegel. Nachoum Amos has also won awards from Nikon, Communication Arts and was the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He also works closely with conservation projects around the world to protect the fragile ocean ecosystems that are under threat from pollution, plastics and over fishing.
This is a fascinating exploration of the work of a world class wildlife photographer, and as the audience we are taken along with him on the hunt for the greatest shot of his life!
This is one of the most iconic documentaries that has ever been made and has been a continuing source of new ideas for photographers, videographers and creatives ever since its release in 1992. Baraka is unique in so many ways and the complete lack of narration or commentary throughout the film is just one of them. However this quickly draws the audience in and allows them to create their own story and meanings from the beautiful imagery.
Directed by Ron Fricke, Baraka invites the viewer to journey around the world, stopping off in 24 countries, observing festivals, ceremonies and other cultural aspects of the societies. The camera work is superb and the palette of colors throughout the documentary is a treat for the eyes! Originally filmed in a 70mm Todd-AO format it was later restored and uploaded to digital.
Baraka takes the audience through spectacular scenes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, burning smoke filled oil fields in the Middle East, the peaceful Ryoan Temple in Kyoto and the celebrations of the Maasai in Kenya, to name just a few. The totality of the videographic genius is so all encompassing that it has to be seen to be believed!
Strangely profound and emotive, this is one of the most visually stunning films that has ever been made. Every photographer or videography must see this – not only for the inspiration it will inevitably inculcate in you but also to simply witness firsthand what can only be described as a creative tour de force.
Photography Documentaries – A Glimpse Behind the Camera.
So many times photographers are defined by what they do with their camera while they themselves remain an absolute mystery. This fuels curiosity about who they are and how they work and so it’s always fascinating to watch photography documentaries that illuminate these facets of their personality. This can give you ideas and a new zest in your own work and projects but it also helps you to learn from the vast variations in the creative processes of photography.
Which is your favorite documentary regarding photography and photographers?
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