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10 Inspiring Photo Documentaries Worth Your Time

As we try to find inspiration in our environment that fuels our desire and imagination as artists, we each develop our own style. Sometimes, you may find yourself feeling stuck creatively.

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Or you might be enthusiastic about taking photos but be unsure where to focus your energy and enthusiasm. If that’s the case, you might profit from a little history lesson.

Whatever field of photography you may favor, you can find a wealth of photographers from the same field who made a name for themselves taking the same kind of photos. Or you can explore other areas of photography that you’re not so familiar with to find new inspiration. Toward that end, we’ve put together a list of some great documentaries about photographers in all manner of expertise.

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter was a unique individual and a unique artist. He was slavishly devoted to photography and was a genius at recognizing instances in his day-to-day life that captured the beauty of existence. His work often seemed to come from some alien perspective, turning a moment anyone might see on any given day into something strange and mystical. He was known to be a master of color, and his work found its way into numerous fashion magazines, including Elle, British Vogue, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.

Filmmaker filmed and worked with Leiter for three years to produce No Need to Hurry, and released it in 2012. It documents what turn out to be the last years of the iconic photographer’s life, as Leiter passed away in 2013. He left behind a photographic legacy that will continue to influence the art for many years to come.

Rock n Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen

Bob Gruen continues to make his mark on photography by walking among rocks stars, documenting all the excitement you’d expect to be happening backstage. Gruen has captured some of rock and roll’s most iconic moments on film, photographing artists such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, the Ramones and Led Zeppelin.

The film Rock N Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen shows Gruen working, taking pictures of musicians onstage and off. The documentary also includes interviews with many of the artists Gruen has photographed over the years. It’s one of the most exciting movies on our list.

Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks

Few artists have achieved the level of social impact that Gordon Parks did. Parks, a self-taught photographer, was the first African American to be hired by Life, one of the largest publications in the world at that time. Parks’ work as a photojournalist brought attention to conditions endured by African Americans in the South during the struggle for civil rights. He also shined a light on poverty in Rio de Janeiro.

Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks tells the story of how Parks came to be a photographer and what he accomplished afterward. It documents how Parks became one of the most esteemed photographers, as well as a renowned author, filmmaker and painter.

Finding Vivan Maier

Vivian Maier will most likely go down in history as one of the greatest unknown photographers of modern times. An intensely private person, Maier worked as a nanny, caring for children. Otherwise, she lived a mostly solitary, unremarkable life.

After she died, though, a collector bought a box of exposed but undeveloped film, negatives, slides and 8mm film reels at an auction. All of it had belonged to Maier, being a product of a lifetime of taking photos and filming random scenes. As it turns out, Vivian Maier was an amazing street photographer.

Finding Vivian Maier tries to piece together the life and work of a woman who didn’t even tell her friends she took photographs. The film talks to her friends, as well as some of the children she cared for.

Man Ray

If you’re at all interested in experimental and artistic photography, then you might enjoy learning about Man Ray. Ray was one of the most influential photographers to release a shutter since the invention of the camera.

Before Man Ray took to photography, he tried his hand at other art forms. He was born and raised in the United States, but moved to Paris in the early 1920s. Soon thereafter, he set down his brushes and palette in favor of photography, joining the Da-Da anti-art movement.

Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye

No lesson in photography history is complete without a look into the life and work of Alfred Stieglitz. His photographs not only set the stage for everyone who would come after him, but helped cement the notion that photography was and is an art form that deserves the same respect and consideration as other forms, such as painting and sculpture.

Stieglitz championed photography, becoming almost as well-known for his writing on photography as for the photos he took. He left behind a lifetime of work that still endures to this day.

Everybody Street

If you enjoy street photography, Everybody Street should be right up your alley, so to speak. It focuses on different modern street photographers, following them as they work and discuss their different approaches and philosophies on their art.

The clip below is about Bruce Gilden, one of the U.S.’s most well-known street photographers. His style might be a little abrasive, as he tends to get right in peoples’ faces, often catching them by surprise when he takes their photos. But he produces some great images.

Photography Shorts

Along with the feature-length movies we’ve covered, the Internet is also full of wonderful short films about photography and photographers. These are sort of bite-sized videos that can serve as quick reminders of how fun, fulfilling and emptionally impactful photography can be.

The Sartorialist

When Scott Shuman had to quit his job to take care of his daughter, he decided to start a fashion blog, The Sartorialist. He carried a camera around with him whenever he’d go out, taking photos of New York’s most finely dressed pedestrians. His images came to change the world of fashion blogging. This is a short film showing Shuman at work.

Leica’s Facing Change: Documenting America Series

Each episode of Leica’s Facing Change: Documenting America series shows a contemporary photographer capturing the ever-shifting state of America and its people.

The video below features Danny Wilcox Frazier, a photographer from Iowa who’s been working for years documenting the fading way of life of small Midwestern farms. His work is stunning. If you want to see more of his work, check out Driftless: Stories from Iowa

Dark Side of the Lens

Dark Side of the Lens is pure imagery. It’s eye candy for photography geeks and surfers alike. This short film is full of gorgeous imagery waves. That’s it, just water crashing onto rocks and rolling in from the sea. Filmmaker and photographer Mickey Smith won what seems like every award ever made for Dark Side of the Lens.  It’s definitely worth six minutes and five seconds.

These are obviously only a fraction of the documentaries out there. Did you feel like we left some off that deserved a spot? Have you seen any of the movies we listed here? Let us know what you think. Also, don’t forget to check out our previous collection of photo documentaries.

Chris Ford

Chris Ford is a house husband and freelance writer, covering photography, music and entertainment. He is also a student of journalism at Florida A&M University. He also produces a podcast and writes comedy. You can follow him on Twitter @TopherMFord
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