I don’t know if it’s the heat and humidity or what, but I’ve been holing up and watching lots of documentaries lately, including a few great photography films. There are lots more on my list to see, including Bill Cunningham New York [Netflix Instant], Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye [Amazon], and Eugéne and Berenice – Pioneers of Urban Photography [Amazon Instant]. In the meantime, I thought I might share a few of the documentaries I’ve really enjoyed lately and a few thoughts.
Let me know if you check them out, and if so, what you think. I’d also love to hear your recommendations — please send them my way. Stay cool!
Strand: Under the Dark Cloth (1990) – [Netflix Instant]
I recently watched this documentary about New York photographer Paul Strand after checking out another documentary on the Photo League at a theatre in the Village. This film is a nice biographical portrait of Strand’s work, following its progression throughout his career from his early New York abstract photographs through his later film career and world travels to France, Mexico, Ghana and more. The narration about Strand’s emphasis on structure and light was particularly interesting.
Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007) – [Netflix Instant]
To escape the heat this afternoon, I holed up and watched this documentary about curator / visionary Sam Wagstaff and his partner / photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The film features loads of interview footage with Patti Smith, Dominick Dunne, Dick Cavett, and other contemporaries in the New York art scene. Though I’ve had more exposure to the the well-documented controversy around Mapplethorpe’s work, I knew less about Wagstaff. Though the dynamics of the relationship between the two men are discussed throughout, the real focus is on Wagstaff and his his huge contributions to the photographic world as a life-long curator.
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (2008) – [Netflix Instant]
Wow. This film was the trifecta for me. Architecture, modernism, and iconic photography in the beautiful light of Southern California. Even if you’ve never heard of Julius Shulman, you’ve no doubt seen his photographs, which pioneered and elevated architecture photography. This documentary features both Shulman’s work – and Shulman himself before his death in 2009 – as they recreate and and narrate some of his most famous photographs. Lots of emphasis on Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Frank Gehry here as Dustin Hoffman narrates this gorgeous film. Shulman steals the show in much of the footage as he goes around to interview the artists and architects he shared with the world decades before. Seriously, a must-see.
The President’s Photographer (2010) – [Netflix Instant] or [via PBS]
Since its creation, I’ve followed the Flickr stream of the White House, largely because the vast majority of its images come from Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza. Souza’s behind-the-scenes coverage of the White House and the Obama family is unparalleled. It offers such a different perspective of the President’s day-to-day personal and political life, and the work is nothing short of groundbreaking and historical. This documentary from National Geographic, narrated by Morgan Freeman and originally aired on PBS, features interviews with President Obama, President George W. Bush, and lots of political staffers. Souza’s hard work and the gravity with which he approaches his job as Chief Photographer contribute to amazing documentary images. Such an interesting / emotional / inspirational documentary.
Manufactured Landscapes (2006) – [Netflix Instant]
A few years ago, a friend recommended this documentary to me after it originally appeared on Netflix’s instant line-up. They took it down before I had a chance to check it out, but fortunately it’s back! The film features the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is most known for his large-format photographs of austere landscapes altered – and sometimes completely decimated – by industry. Mostly shot in China, this documentary is as much about environmental issues as it is about photography. Burtynsky highlights the effects of our industrial interests on the world we live in and the problems our consumer culture has given rise to — some of these landscapes may very well be invisible if not for his photographs.
The September Issue (2008) – [Netflix Instant]
And last, but not least to be sure, is this documentary about the high-fashion world of Vogue and all the preparation leading up to the publication of the 2007 fall-fashion issue. Though I’d say much of the film centers around the cult of Anna Wintour and her complicated relationship with Grace Coddington, the sleeper here is the photography. This film really illuminates the process of publishing a huge magazine like Vogue and all the preparation that goes into producing so much of the amazing commercial photography in the iconic issues. A really fun film.