Watch: The Greatest Photography Documentaries

Oliver Lunn

Who do you think of when you think of the greatest photographers of all time? Henri Cartier-Bresson? Diane Arbus? Don McCullin? Robert Frank? Well, it just so happens that many of the greatest photographers – all with varying styles and approaches to the medium – have had documentaries made about them, and, what's more, these films are available to watch online FOR FREE. 

So, like a photographer hovering his/her finger over the shutter release to capture that one-off moment, all you have to do below is click "play"... 

William Klein (1928-present)

To coincide with William Klein's insanely stunning recent show at London's Tate Modern, alongside fellow visionary Daido Moriyama, the BBC made this great little documentary on one of the most charismatic and idiosyncratic voices in 21st century photography. From Klein's spontaneous and capricious NYC street snaps to his fashion and film work, this is one that'll make sure you never leave home without your trusty camera dangling from your neck. 

Robert Frank (1924-present)

With Beat author Jack Kerouac famously introducing Frank's seminal 'The Americans' collection, you know this well-respected photographer was right in the heart of 1950s Americana. This insightful documentary also tells of how Frank dabbled in short film, shooting Pull My Daisy (1959) with pals Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in a tiny, smoke-filled New York apartment. Totally happening, man. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

Forget the fact that Bresson's romantic work is splashed across postcards and twee posters the world over, his work is still intensely beautiful and dramatic. Sure, all those fashionable photographs of grey, graffiti-stained concrete buildings are stunning in their own right (although not as original nowadays) but there's nothing wrong with actually liking something that is romantic in the traditional sense, is there? Call me old-fashioned, go on. 

William Eggleston (1939-present)

One of the true pioneers (largely of colour), Eggleston earned critical plaudits for pointing his camera at the mundane: ceilings, sockets, road markings, that sort of thing. His crowning glory, however, must surely be his photo that featured on Big Star's first album cover. I don't know about you, but that's how I discovered Eggleston. It's just like how I discovered Gerhard Richter after drooling over Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation album cover

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978)

Quite possibly the most ballsiest photojournalist there ever was (the guy pretty much blew himself up in countless war-torn countries), Eugene Smith was every bit the thrill-seeker, heading to countries you've probably never been to, and shooting things you've probably never seen – not that you could stomach such real-life horrors. This is more than just photography.  

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Did Arbus exploit her subjects? Was she genuinely interested in these people's lives or was she only interested in shooting "freaks"? These are the questions that you can't escape when viewing the work of Diane Arbus, the New York street photographer whose shots were unmistakably her own and, however you feel about them, always capture your attention.  

Miroslav Tichy (1926-2011)

The elusive Miroslav Tichý was interesting for so many reasons; one being his insistence that "you have to have a bad camera". Indeed his lo-fi snaps of women in his hometown of Kyjov in the Czech Republic were mostly made with elaborate, hand-made cameras; meaning the end result was a highly distorted, ambiguous image that looked more akin to an abstract expressionist painting by Willem de Kooning. Needless to say, there really hasn't been a photographer, before or since, quite like Tichý.

André Kertész (1894-1985)


Nan Goldin (1953-present)

The 59-year-old photographer (and still going strong) was heavily criticised for "glamourising" heroin addiction and kick-starting the whole 'miserablist' grunge scene (although the latter should be praise-worthy, no?). Interestingly, Goldin's photographs were the inspiration for the film High Art (1998) in which the character Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy) plays a similar photographer.  

Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

Best known for his epic American landscape shots, Adams couldn’t be further from the street-focused Arbus and Klein. And yet, in the same way, he manages to find a distinctly personal angle on the perennial desolate American landscape, aka The Great Outdoors. 

Cindy Sherman (1954-present)

Sherman’s work is unique in that she is the ever-changing, chameleonic subject matter. Not so much the exhibitionist, Sherman masks her true personality in favour of seemingly eccentric characters worthy of a Fellini movie cast. 

Annie Leibovitz (1949-present)

Celebrity photographers can be artists too, right? If you’re ever in doubt, check out the work of Leibovitz, whose intimate portraits of well-known figures always reveal something hitherto seen. To our minds, Mario Testino is the only other respectable “celebrity photographer” who’s managed to illuminate faces that have already been snapped a gazillion times. 

Other great must-see documentaries (although you might have to pay!)...

In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter (2012)
McCullin (2012)
Everybody Street (2013)
Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Follow Oliver on Twitter: @OliverLunn

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