DocHouse Picks: 5 of the Best Docs about Photography
I don’t think Cecil Beaton was like anybody else… He was a photographer
and he was a designer, but he was [also] a personality.
Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for the New York Times and ‘Love, Cecil’ contributor
On 1st December, we open Love, Cecil, director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s biopic of legendary photographer, designer, writer, and illustrator, Cecil Beaton. Making use of a rich archive of material, Love, Cecil charts Beaton’s life from a self-proclaimed ‘idyllic childhood’ through to his reclusive death in 1980. The film documents in turn how he found his sense of cultural curiosity at university; his enduring love affairs with both photography and those he photographed; and his later acceptance by the establishment as both the official photographer at the Queen’s Coronation and the recipient of multiple Academy and Tony awards for his set and costume designs in the 1960s and 1970s.
An indomitable and idiosyncratic figure in the history of modern Art & Design, director Lisa Immordino Vreeland masterfully acknowledges that in a documentary of his life, Beaton should tell his own story. Taking extracts from his prolific archive of diaries, read affectionately by Actor Rupert Everett, Beaton’s own view of his world is juxtaposed against anecdotes from cultural royalty and collaborators including David Bailey, David Hockney and Leslie Caron. Fleshing out the picture that Beaton painted of himself with humorous anecdotes and honest commentary, Love, Cecil feels like a truthful portrait of the legendary photographer, filled with all the charm, grace, reverence and catty gossip you’d want and expect from a documentary about this controversial and iconic artist.
In celebration of Love, Cecil’s release, which plays daily from 1st December, here’s a rundown of five great docs about photography. Whether you want to whet your appetite ahead of the film’s release, learn more about the art of photography and the photographic process, or want to simply broaden your documentary horizons, there’s a film here for everyone.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
For decades, The New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham obsessively, and inventively, documented New York fashion trends. From the city’s streets to high-society charity soirées, his photographs and observations filled the newspaper’s Style section in his "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" columns. Featuring interviews with New York glitterati (including Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Brooke Astor and David Rockefeller), downtown eccentrics, and everyone in between, director Richard Press deftly captures Cunningham's enormous body of work, his photographic process and his role as a window into the elusive world of fashion and society in New York.
Available to rent from Amazon Video.
Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
In 2007, filmmaker and amateur historian John Maloof unearthed a cache of over 100,000 undeveloped films and negatives at a Chicago auction house. In this film, co-directed with Charlie Siskel, the pair trace the collection back to Vivian Maier: a mysterious professional nanny whose extraordinary body of work has since earned her the reputation as one of America’s most accomplished and insightful street photographers. Intertwining her stunning never before seen archive of photographs with candid interviews from those who knew her, the film paints a vivid picture of a difficult recluse with resolutely unique view of the world.
LETTER TO JANE: AN INVESTIGATION ABOUT A STILL (1972)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin as part of the short-lived ‘Dziga Vertov Group’, Letter to Jane: An Investigation about a Still is a postscript film to the pair’s earlier fiction collaboration, Tout Va Bien. Narrated in a back-and-forth style by both Godard and Gorin, a single photograph of actress Jane Fonda in Vietnam fills the screen for most of the film’s 52-minute running time. As Gorin and Godard verbally deconstruct the composition of this single news photograph, this cinematic essay unpicks how the iconography of a photograph generates meaning, and the case of this particular still, the kind of meaning that can change the world.
Available to watch for free on YouTube
THE SALT OF THE EARTH (2014)
For the last 40 years, photographer Sebastião Salgado has been travelling across continents, capturing the footprints left by humanity on the landscape. In The Salt of the Earth, we follow Salgado as he embarks on a new photographic project: capturing the world’s plethora of wild fauna, flora, and grandiose landscapes as a tribute to the planet's beauty. Along the journey, Salgado's life and work are revealed by his son, Juliano, who went with him during his last travels, and legendary director and photographer Wim Wenders. Their finished film, The Salt of the Earth, is both a celebration art’s power to change the world and a consideration of sacrifices an artist make to fulfil their potential.
WAR PHOTOGRAPHER (2001)
A classic of the genre, director Christian Frei film follows photographer James Nachtwey, considered by many to be the one of the greatest ever war photographers. Innovatively shot at that time, with a small camera mounted on Nachtwey's camera, shots of the eponymous photographer in action are interwoven with a series of talking heads detailing his bravery, photographic prowess, and persistence to document the harrowing truth about modern warfare. Slowly, the film reveals the emotional toll his work has taken on him, creating an intense portrait of the gifted and idealistic peacemaker trying his best to report the truth and in turn alleviate the pain and suffering caused by war.
Available to watch for free on The Archive