25 best movies about real photographers

Documentary biopics

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

Helmet Newton relaxing in an armchair

Helmut Newton: Frames from the Edge (RM Arts)

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.

13. Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light (1995)

Richard Avedon looking serious

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

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.

14. War Photographer (2001)

Man photographs scene of armed conflict

James Nachtwey in War Photographer (Warner Home Video)

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.

15. Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (2001)

Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (PBS)

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.

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

Two men stood against a canvas fence

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

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. 

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

Man photographs flowers

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

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.

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

Annie Leibowitz in crowded room

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

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. 

19. Guest of Cindy Sherman (2009)

Man with flowers in shadow of a woman

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

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.

20. Smash His Camera (2010)

Man follows woman down street holding camera

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

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.  

21. Somewhere to Disappear (2010)

Camera tripod standing on a desert plain

The movie poster for Somewhere to Disappear (Mas Films)

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.

22. McCullin (2012)

Poster for McCullin featuring shocked-looking soldier

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

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. 

23. Bill Cunningham New York (2012)

Bill Cunningham on bicycle taking a picture

Bill Cunningham New York (First Thought Films)

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.

24. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Woman on street with a camera round her neck

Finding Vivian Maier (Ravine Pictures)

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.

25. The Salt of the Earth (2014)

Man taking photos in wilderness landscape

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

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.

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