25 best movies about real photographers

25 best movies about real photographers
Nicole Kidman & Ty Burrell in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Picturehouse)

Have you burned through your watch list on Netflix and Prime Video? Well, don't worry – we've put together a list of the 25 best movies about real-life photographers. 

There are some fantastic movies, documentaries and biopics here, covering everyone the likes of David Bailey, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibowitz and Helmut Newton, and featuring Hollywood heavyweights from Nicole Kidman to Robert Pattinson. 

Of course, there are a number of films currently stuck in development hell, such the Don McCullin biopic starring Tom Hardy, the Lee Miller project featuring Kate Winslet, and Steven Spielberg’s It’s What I Do with Jennifer Lawrence portraying Lynsey Addario.

• 10 best online photography courses

Until these finally materialize, though, we've listed the best of the best features currently available to watch – which we've listed alphabetically, and divided between dramatizations and documentaries.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for fictional films where the main characters carry cameras, check out our list of Top 25 movies about fictional photographers

Dramatized biopics

Farrah Fawcett in Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White (TNT)

01. Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White (1989) 

Born in 1904, Margaret Bourke-White was both the first foreign photographer to take pictures of the Soviet five-year plan and America’s first female war photojournalist. She even provided the cover image for the first-ever issue of Life magazine. Farrah Fawcett gives an excellent (and award-winning) performance as Bourke-White in this well-paced biopic, which intertwines the story of her career with that of her rocky relationship with her second husband.

Haing S Ngor, John Malkovich, Sam Waterston and Julian Sands in The Killing Fields (Warner Bros)

02. The Killing Fields (1991)

This British-made drama focuses on the real-life experiences of two photojournalists, Cambodian Dith Pran (1942-2008) and American Sydney Schanberg (1934-2016), during the rise of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. It uses a more stark and documentary-style of film-making than a typical Hollywood movie, and is all the more emotionally engaging and disturbing because of it. Plus, without giving too much away, there’s a scene around the development of a piece of film that anyone from the analogue era will find both heart-stopping and fascinating.

Man and woman stand behind a camera on a tripod

Toby Stephens and Emily Woof in Photographing Fairies (PolyGram/BBC Films)

03. Photographing Fairies (1997)

Everyone knows that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes novels, but did you know he also believed in fairies? That’s because he was duped by a series of five fake photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two cousins who lived in Cottingley, near Bradford, England. This movie takes "inspiration" from this true-life story, rather than relating it particularly accurately, but it's an entertaining romp nonethless. And more broadly, it does a good job in showing how photographic manipulation is nothing new, nor specific to the digital age.

Nicole Kidman & Ty Burrell in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Picturehouse) 

04. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) 

American photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was chiefly known for her work documenting marginalised groups such as dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, and circus performers. This drama based on her life is thoroughly entertaining and moving stuff, and Nicole Kidman is terrific in the main role. Don’t treat it as fact, though: the story is mainly fictional, and the Diane Arbus estate refused to give their approval as a consequence.

Maria Heiskanen in Everlasting Moments (Icon Productions)

05. Everlasting Moments (2008)

Everlasting Moments is a Swedish drama based on the true story of Maria Larsson, an uneducated, working-class woman who, in 1911, won a camera in a lottery and went on to become a professional photographer. Narrated by her daughter, it's a classic tale of triumph over adversity and doggedly pursuing what you love; all the more affecting for being based on a real person.

Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld, Taylor Kitsch and Ryan Philippe in The Bang Bang Club (Entertainment One) 

06. The Bang Bang Club (2010)

The Bang Bang Club was a group of four conflict photographers active within the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994: Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and João Silva. This Canadian-South African movie adapts an account of their work written by two of its members, and depicts the extremes they went to to capture their pictures. While it's been criticised for not delving deeper into the politics of the era, as a dramatisation of the realities of life as a conflict photographer it’s a stunning achievement.

Aneurin Barnard and Karen Gillan in We'll Take Manhattan (BBC/Kudos) 

07. We'll Take Manhattan (2012)

This British movie relates the real-life affair between photographer David Bailey (Aneurin Barnard) and model Jean Shrimpton (Karen Gillan), while on a one-week assignment in New York for Vogue in 1962. The film-makers went to great pains to recreate the photos from the original shoot, using a combination of props, and computer-generated imagery. And the film also nails the central narrative, showing effectively how the pair's efforts turned the staid world of fashion photography upside-down.

Robert Pattinson holding a camera

Robert Pattinson in Life (Barry Films Production/First Generation Films/See-Saw Films) 

08. Life (2015)

This biopic of Dennis Stock (1928-2010), a photographer for Life magazine, focuses on his friendship with the actor James Dean (played by Dane DeHaan). With Robert Pattinson in the lead role, this is a highly personal film that highlights the tension between photographing someone on a job and treating them as a friend, two things that can often come into conflict with each other. 

Karel Roden in Fotograf (Ceská Televize/Cineart TV/Eydelle Film)

09. Fotograf (2015)

Born in Prague in 1935, Jan Saudek is one of the most famous photographers his nation has ever produced. Fotograf is based on his life and work, but only loosely; it's far from a straight biopic. Instead this Czech-made ‘dramedy’, which stars Karel Roden and was co-written by Saudek himself, strides a fine line between veracity and irony. In doing so, it avoids the heavy-handed plodding that biopics are typically prone to, and the result is quirky, yet satisfying.

Man with beard photographs a woman

Michael Eckland in Eadweard (Eadweard Pictures/Motion 58 Entertainment)

10. Eadweard (2015)

This Canadian indie tells the tale of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the pioneering photographer who in 1872 famously took 12 still images of a horse galloping and combined them in a prototype film reel, to prove that all four feet leave the ground at the same time. Muybridge was also well-known for shooting nude and deformed subjects, and for killing his wife's lover, so there's plenty of true-life material to ensure this biopic never flags. Michael Eckland gives an excellent performance in the title role, too, and while the weird score and offbeat humour can be irritating, overall this is a very entertaining and informative watch. 

A man on balcony looks up, cigarette in mouth

Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe

11. Mapplethorpe (2018)

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was one of the first to convince curators that photography could be considered art. But what he'll inevitably be best remembered for is the way incorporated male genitalia, homoeroticism and BDSM subculture into his work, in a way that still shocks today. So be warned: there are a lot of penises in this biopic, currently touring film festivals, which stars The Crown actor Matt Smith as the controversial artist. That doesn’t, however, deflect the film from efficiently dramatising the main landmarks in Mapplethorpe’s life, from his youthful relationship with Patti Smith to his untimely death from AIDS. Most admirably, it avoids oversentimentalising a man that even friends and admirers said could be "difficult". 

Documentary biopics

Helmut Newton: Frames from the Edge (RM Arts)

12. Helmut Newton: Frames from the Edge (1989)

Known for his erotic images of tall, blond and big-breasted women, Helmut Newton (1920-2004) is one of the most iconic names in the history of fashion and advertising photography. This documentary, filmed while the German-Australian was in his sixties, follows him across shoots in LA, to Paris, Monte-Carlo and Berlin. It's a fun romp throughout and never takes its subject too seriously; in fact, it’s as much a document of the gaudy excesses of the 1980s fashion industry as an insightful look behind a photographer’s lens.

Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light (Eagle Rock Entertainment/WNET Channel 13 New York)

13. Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light (1995)

Richard Avedon (1923-2004) was a portrait photographer who revolutionised the worlds of fashion and advertising photography in the second half of the 20th century. This solid documentary, from the PBS 'American Masters' series, takes you through his life and career through interviews, celebrity comments and original footage. Highlights include Avedon’s stories of how Marilyn Monroe “freely danced” in his studio for hours and how, in 1952, Charlie Chaplin called him out of the blue and popped round for a visit.

Man photographs scene of armed conflict

James Nachtwey in War Photographer (Warner Home Video)

14. War Photographer (2001)

Born in 1948, James Nachtwey is a US photojournalist who's been awarded the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa Gold Medal five times, along with two World Press Photo awards. This Swiss documentary follows him as he travels to conflict zones around the world. Simply watching the man at work would be enough to engage most viewers, but this documentary goes beyond just explaining his process, and digs deep into Nachtwey’s psyche, as he responds to challenging questions about the ethics and emotions surrounding his work.

Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (PBS)

15. Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (2001)

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was an American photographer who was pivotal in making photography an accepted art form, both through his own work and the New York galleries he ran. This thoroughly researched PBS documentary traces the career and influence of the man whose work was described by Edward Steichen as “like none ever made by any other photographer”. Along it way, you get the chance to see not just his most famous pictures but also his lesser-known images; from early images of European peasant life to views of New York’s skyscrapers seen from his window.

Two men stood against a canvas fence

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye (Arthouse Films)

16. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye (2003)

One of the most important figures in the medium’s history, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was a frustrated French painter who pioneered the genre of street photography, and famous defined the discipline as “capturing a decisive moment”. Filmed shortly before his death, this documentary sees the notoriously press-shy artist review his impressive portfolio of iconic images, from Gandhi's funeral to the fall of China, as historians and colleagues explore his impact and influence on others. 

Man photographs flowers

William Eggleston: In the Real World (Keep Your Head/High Line Productions)

17. William Eggleston: In the Real World (2005)

One of the first in the profession to legitimise colour photography as an artistic medium, William Eggleston has been a dividing figure, not least for his groundbreaking 1976 show at New York's MoMA, described as “the most hated show of the year". This documentary follows him on trips to Kentucky, Los Angeles, New York City and Memphis, where he takes pictures on the streets and in local stores. Mumbling throughout, and frequently at odds at his interviewer, Eggleston is resistant to intellectualising or even analysing his work, but just seeing this master photographer walk, talk and shoot is a treat in its own right.

Annie Leibowitz in crowded room

Annie Leibowitz: Life Through a Lens (Adirondack Pictures, BBC, Fortissimo Films)

18. Annie Leibowitz: Life Through a Lens (2008)

Born in Conneticut in 1949, Anna-Lou ‘Annie’ Leibovitz is possibly the world’s most famous portrait photographer. This documentary, directed by her sister Barbara Leibovitz, traces the influences that have shaped her, from childhood to her transition from Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair, to later personal relationships including motherhood. Although the most negative parts of her story (such as her drug addiction) are skirted over, this is still a fascinating look at a tumultuous, but ultimately triumphant, career in photography. 

Man with flowers in shadow of a woman

Paul H-O in Guest of Cindy Sherman (Donahuefilm, AI Pictures, Sundial Pictures)

19. Guest of Cindy Sherman (2009)

Born in 1954, US photographer Cindy Sherman is best known for her work subverting the stereotypes of women in media. Rather than a straight biopic, though, this film focuses on the ill-fated relationship between Sherman and Paul H-O, a star of cable-access TV. If you’re looking for an antidote to overly sentimentalised or simplified documentaries, and want to see something a bit more down to earth and complex, this is an entertaining (if sometimes excrutiating) watch.

Man follows woman down street holding camera

Ron Galella in Smash His Camera (Got The Shot Productions)

20. Smash His Camera (2010)

Born in 1931, Ronald Edward Galella, aka Ron Galella, is one of history’s most controversial photographers. Dubbed "the Godfather of the U.S. paparazzi culture" by Time magazine, he's taken more than three million photographs of public figures and gained notoriety through his feuds with Jacqueline Onassis and Marlon Brando. Although this award-winning documentary pulls its punches on the ethics of his trade, it's still an enjoyable look behind the lens of one of the industry's most colourful characters.  

Camera tripod standing on a desert plain

The movie poster for Somewhere to Disappear (Mas Films)

21. Somewhere to Disappear (2010)

Based in Minneapolis, Alec Soth is an American photographer known for documenting life and landscapes in the midwestern states. This documentary follows along as he embarks on his ‘Broken Manual’ project, about men who are trying to disappear from society by living in places like a cave or a desert shelter. Steering a careful path between empathy and voyeurism, it’s all beautifully shot, while the quiet, meditative nature of the narrative is perfect for its often disturbing subject matter.

Poster for McCullin featuring shocked-looking soldier

Poster for McCullin (British Film Company, Frith Street Films, Mugshots Productions, Rankin Film Productions)

22. McCullin (2012)

Donald (aka Don) McCullin is a British photojournalist famed for his images of conflict in places like Berlin, Cyprus, Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon and the United States. This conventional yet informative documentary features extensive interviews with the photographer and his Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, both of whom speak plainly and frankly about everything from McCullin’s approach to composition to the ethics of his profession. 

Bill Cunningham New York (First Thought Films)

23. Bill Cunningham New York (2012)

Bill Cunningham (1929-2016), a fashion photographer for The New York Times, was known far and wide for his candid and street photography. This profile shows him working in the studio, in the office and at home, and includes interviews with friends and subjects such as Tom Wolfe, David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor and Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Full of fun and wit, this is an uplifting film that perfectly encapsulate Cunningham’s deep passion for his calling.

Finding Vivian Maier (Ravine Pictures)

24. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Few people ever saw the street photography of Vivian Maier (1926-2009) in her lifetime. But over 100,000 images by the New York nanny were uncovered after her death, and she is now considered one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. This Oscar-nominated documentary tells the riveting story of this post-mortem discovery and features never-before-seen photographs and films, as well as interviews with people who thought they knew her.

Sebastião Salgado in The Salt of the Earth  (Decia Films)

25. The Salt of the Earth (2014)

Brazilian Sebastião Salgado is one of the most revered names in modern photojournalism. This documentary, directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Juliano, traces the timeline of his life, beginning with his exile from Brazil and his transition from economist to photographic artist. From the Ethiopian famine to Rwandan genocide, his images are often not for the faint-hearted, but the film-makers strike a good balance between a despairing and hopeful message in this tribute to a man whose work inspires journalists the world over.

Read more: 

Top 25 movies about fictional photographers
18 best TV shows about photography

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Tom May

Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specializing in art, photography, design and travel. He has been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. He has also worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, T3, Heat, Company and Bella.