My Top 5 Photography Documentaries on YouTube

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Surrounding yourself with inspiration is one of the best ways to jump-start your creativity. By viewing the works of others, we connect with our own photographic practice. One of my favorite things to do in a creative lull is to trawl YouTube. I could spend hours looking for interesting photography documentaries to watch and study.

I always feel myself rearing to get photographing by the time the credits roll. So here are a few of the favorites that I like to revisit from time to time. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

#1 – The Many Lives of William Klein

Note: there is a warning of strong language in this video so if you find that offensive you might want to go to the next one.

William Klein is known for his gritty street photography as well as his fashion work with Vogue. As a creator of some of the most iconic imagery of the 20th century, the American-born French photographer originally trained as a painter. Despite having no formal training as a photographer, Klein won the Prix Nadar in 1957 for New York, a book of photographs he compiled in 1954. Since then, Klein’s work has been praised as uncompromising and revolutionary in both his approach and execution.

The Many Lives of William Klein takes a peek into Klein’s world as he prepares his retrospective exhibition. Smart and sarcastic, Klein recounts memoirs of his photographic past and shares insights into his process and passion for photography.

#2 – The Colourful Mr. Eggleston

Produced by BBC for its “Imagine” TV series, The Colourful Mr. Eggleston provides a rare look into the life and work of one of photography’s most influential proponents. William Eggleston was born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee to a family of plantation owners. He grew up in Sumner, Mississippi and spent six years studying at various art schools, never receiving a degree. When he received his first camera in 1957, a Canon rangefinder, he was hooked. As one of the first art photographers to use color film, he began visually recording the world around him, capturing everyday moments in life in compressed color and light.

Eggleston’s idols, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans roamed the world for photographic subject matter. But Eggleston remained rooted in Memphis. His wife, Rosa, tells the story that one day Eggleston told a friend that there was nothing to photograph because everything in the city was ugly. The friend told him to “photograph the ugly stuff” which set him on a path photographing a contemporary landscape made up of vending machines, light bulbs, power poles, wires, signs, urban decay and occasionally human subjects.

The Colorful Mr. Eggleston follows his photographic process in and around Memphis as he isolates the facets of everyday life that make up the dense, atmospheric imagery of his work.

#3 – The Genius of Photography

The Genius of Photography is a series originally featured on BBC Four that investigates the rich history of photography. Over the six-part series, the documentary explores an aspect of the photographic medium. It covers the earliest incarnations of photography through to modern digital practice.

From art to commercial photography, the series includes interviews and encounters with some of the world’s best including William Klein, Sally Mann, Jeff Wall and many more.

#4 – Lomography: Shoot from the Hip

The Lomo Camera: Shoot from the Hip is a colorful insight into the history and momentum of the Lomography movement. The philosophy behind Lomography is “Don’t Think, Just Shoot”, encouraging spur-of-the-moment photography not dissimilar to Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. The movement is also accompanied by 10 golden rules encouraging spontaneous, active photography with less concern for formal photographic technique.

While Lomography itself can be a bit hit-and-miss, the documentary conveys a world of unfocused color and spontaneity. But the Lomo ethos isn’t reserved only for photographers with plastic cameras; much of the Lomographic practice can still appeal to those with more hi-tech photographic equipment. With rules like “Take your camera everywhere you go” and “Lomography is not an interference in your life, but part of it.”

The Lomo Camera: Shoot from the Hip inspires a fun and creative approach that can be applied across the board photographically.

#5 – The Photographers

Working for National Geographic is a job that many photographers dream of, but few attain. With some assignments lasting for months, National Geographic’s camera staff aren’t just journalists, they’re artists, braving a myriad of hardships. As one Nat Geo photographer featured on the Photographers, Michael (Nick) Nichols explains, “The toughest part of [the] job often times is not taking photographs but surviving an environment”.

Seeking out “memorable images, unusual subjects, and unexpected moments” in some of the most unique and sometimes inhospitable of locations. The Photographers follows several Nat Geo photographers as they capture iconic shots the magazine has become known for, delivering beautiful and unique imagery and delving into what it is that makes up our world.

Conclusion

Photography documentaries are great because they give us a behind-the-scenes look at someone else’s photographic world. Every photographer works differently. So when we view another photographer’s practice, it’s as if they are passing their own inspiration on to us.

These are only a few of the wide selection of photographic documentaries to find on YouTube. So go ahead, start your own list of favorites and get inspired! Share your list in the comments below as well.

Editor’s list: here are a few others I recommend if you can find them:

  • War Photographer – James Nachtwey. I can’t find the whole documentary on YouTube but you can watch his TED talk here.
  • The Big Bang Club is about news photographers in South Africa during the fall of the Apartheid. This one you might have to pay to watch but it’s really worth it.
  • Double Exposure is about the life of photographer Margaret Bourke-White, one of the earliest women photojournalists. I can’t find it on YouTube but look around maybe you can find a copy somewhere.

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Megan Kennedy is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.

  • stoneyblade

    Hi Guys, having just watched the movie it is ” The Bang Bang Club” a gritty look at the lives of a group of photographers who documented the end of Apartheid as well as some of the most awful conflicts taking place around the world at the time. The struggles they went through remaining objective while documenting conflict and disaster were titanic. A “must see” but hard to watch.

  • Thank you for putting this list together. I have made different movie dates to watch these documentaries with fellow photographers. 🙂

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