We’ve sorted through the hundreds and picked our favourites.
Words by Max Finch
Every photographer draws inspiration from many different sources, and documentaries following a handful of the masters of the art are a fantastic starting point. We’ve sorted through the hundreds and picked our favourite examples of these geniuses at the top of their game. All of these documentaries can be watched online and most of them for free.
If you ever dreamt of being a National Geographic photographer, travelling the world shooting the covers of Vogue or documenting a slice of time on the streets of New York, watch on.
Shot over many years in Lake Eyre, Australia, Salt shadows Murray Fredericks on his many journeys to photograph the great salt lakes of South Australia. Highlighting a fascinating creative process and offering incredible landscape shots. Murray also produced a stunning time-lapse video on the lakes. When I watch the time-lapse, I like to imagine the conversations I would be having with the native birds after spending months at a time, solo, on the pink saline dreamscapes of the lake.
The Salt of the Earth (2014)
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado teams up with Wim Wenders, a filmmaker whose forty-year career has seen a myriad of landscape interpretations, for The Salt Of The Earth. Juliano’s father Sebastião Salgado, an intriguing humanist and increasingly important photo-journalist is the subject of this beautifully shot documentary. An example of photography and videography seamlessly intertwining to create a beautiful film.
National Geographic: Search for the Afghan Girl (2014)
A documentary that is essentially focused solely on one photograph, or more correctly, the subject of that photograph. Search for the Afghan Girl follows Steve Mcurry to Afghanistan on his final attempt to find the famous green-eyed subject of a photograph he took in 1984. Part One is above, you can find Part Two here, Part Three here and Part Four here.
Tales By Light (2016)
Available on Netflix.
Canon Australia and National Geographic partnered to produce this Netflix series. Each 30-minute episode features a different National Geographic photographer on their path to creating their perfect image. It’s certainly an advertorial but it’s also very much an absorbing example of documentary film-making.
National Geographic: The Photographers (1995)
It’s not new, but it has aged well. I was the kid in class that said I wanted to be a National Geographic Photographer when I grew up. I had this documentary recorded on VHS and would watch the Kodachrome colour palette light up the screen over and over. Worth watching if you ever thought it would be a fun job to chase incredible animals all around insane landscapes.
Chasing Ice (2012)
Available on Youtube Red.
No matter where you stand on climate change, you should watch this documentary. Hopefully, watching building size glaziers fizzle away like an icy pole in the desert will help you make your mind up. James Balog sets out to deploy several cameras around the Arctic and capture through time-lapse photography the melting of some mighty glaciers.
On Yoga the Architecture of Peace (2017)
Available on Netflix.
A visual journey through meditation and yoga, following the path of photographer Michael O’Neill as he travels to India, Tibet and in between to photograph and speak with the Yogi’s sitting there. A curious and winding tale that demonstrates how slowing down his life helped Michael O’Neill to continue practising his craft.
Join a Wildlife Photographer on the Hunt for the Perfect Shot (2017)
Sit in the grass alongside Belgian wildlife photographer Michel d’Oultremont as he waits and waits and waits some more for the perfect shot. A dreamily filmed exercise in patience.
Samsara (2011) & Baraka (1992)
A perfectly fitting example of the phrase, a visual feast. These non-verbal films are a collection of painstakingly photographed scenes that Director Ron Fricke describes as “a guided meditation on humanity”. Baraka was shot over 30 months on a custom built 65mm film camera and Samsara was created over five years and shot on 70mm film. Both films are mind-meltingly good and thought-provoking at the same time. The website also has an addictive interactive map that will fuel your travel bug into overdrive.
Tierney Gearon: The Mothers Project (2006)
An intimate look into the artistic process of Tierney Gearon and the relationships with her subjects in her series documenting mothers. An intimate and powerful visual conversation about everybody’s first home, a mother.
Everybody Street (2014)
A street photography bible of sorts. An interesting documentary covering the careers of 13 iconic NYC street photographers. Directed by Cheryl Dunn, this is utterly fascinating and very re-watchable documentary that anybody interested in the realm of street photography will lap up.
Helmut Newton: Frames From The Edge | NSWF (1989)
An interesting insight into one of the greatest fashion photographers who ever lived. Often frank and always interesting, this documentary talks about Helmut’s relationship with his printers, publishers and of course, some of the incredible and powerful women he photographed.
Annie Leibowitz: A Life Through A Lens (2008)
Opinions are sometimes divided on Annie Leibowitz, but it cannot be disputed that her work in music and fashion holds an important place in contemporary photography. Her conversations with her partner, and seminal author Susan Sontag, tell a beautiful story of a partners influence on an artists practice. (Editor’s Note: Susan Sontag was, in my opinion, a seminal intellectual, and she authored On Photography, a photographer’s theory manifesto of sorts. It will be right at the top of my photography texts worth reading list.)
Reely and Truly (2015)
Not exactly a documentary, Reely & Truly is a trailer, for a book. It hops and jumps about, skipping from Juergen Teller watching football in his lounge to Jill Freedman looking fabulous at 74, to Petra Collins on the lower east side. Patiently shot on all the, at the time available, celluloid formats (from super 8mm to 65mm) Director Tyrone Lebon intended this teaser film to hold its own as a work of photographic art. The book is due for a much-anticipated release soon and can be pre-ordered here.
Helmut By June | NSFW (1995)
Another Helmut Newton documentary, presented by his wife, June Newton aka Alice Springs. June Newton was in her own right an incredibly talented photographer, and I believe a huge part of Helmut’s work and legacy. Dream team.
Bill Cunningham – New York (2011)
Available on iTunes.
A quiet and unassuming figure, Bill prolifically photographed the streets of New York and the humans that traversed those streets. He was also flown to Paris by some of the greatest fashion houses to photograph shows. A man who sacrificed so much of himself for his work, an endearing film about a pioneering street fashion photographer. A very popular film but absolutely worthy of being on the list.
The Fifth Sense: Episode II (2016)
Part II of a five-part series from iD magazine and Chanel. This short focuses on Harley Weir, a young London native photographer making wondrous imagery. The whole series, produced by Weir, is worth watching, although not only showcasing photographers.
What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (2005)
Available on iTunes.
This is a follow up from the 1992 short Blood Ties and re-joins with Sally during her time producing the work for What Remains a photographic study on death and decay. What really sets the film apart is Sally herself, an incredibly talented and interesting human who created timeless photographs. An intimate insight into the life of a great.
Arakimentari | NSFW (2004)
I was lucky enough to meet Araki on his 75th birthday in Tokyo at a gallery opening. My mother had his books in the house growing up and his work has forever been a fascination to me. Maybe the most prolific photographer of all time. Araki has published somewhere in the vicinity of 400 print books. The Tokyo native shoots everything from Vogue Japan to the underground Tokyo nightlife.
The Many Lives Of William Klein (2012)
Follow Klein as he takes you from his New York roots and his Parisian home. Fashion and street photography rules were completely ignored by Klein and his unique style and images remain poignant today. A frank and interesting BBC doco that sheds some light on the legend behind the lens.
Obsessions: The Art of Bill Henson | NSFW (2018)
The controversial diatribe surrounding some of Bill Henson’s work hasn’t slowed down the curious creative who continues to create some of the most dramatic large-scale portraits of a young Australians. Henson seldom speaks to media and this short documentary, filmed in his amazing Victorian home and studio gardens, shines a little light on the often dark and painterly works being created there.
The Colourful Mr Eggleston (2009)
A pioneer and champion of colour photography in the art world, a true southern gentleman. Go on the road with Eggleston shooting film in Memphis.
I hope these insights get you inspired to get out there and make photographs,