19 Great Documentaries About Photographers (Ranked)

Photographers galore!

I noticed that other “Best Documentaries on Photographers” articles were too broad for my liking.

They were not purely about photographers and instead veered into photography. Some even had sculpturists in there (Photography and Sculpturists deserve there own list of docs!.

So, I decided to craft this list. It’s PURELY about photographers.


1) The Salt of the Earth

“Salt of the Earth”, a 2014 biographical documentary by Wim Wenders (of “Paris, Texas”) and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, magnifies the life and lens of Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado. Cannes, San Sebastián, Tromsø.

Sebastião’s journey? An economist in Paris, a gift – a camera from Lélia, his wife – pivots his path in 1973. News photography evolves into profound documentaries. South America’s untouched territories – like the almost untouched lives of the Zo’é tribe.

SEBASTIÃO: “It’s distribution, not just natural calamity.”
LÉLIA (his supportive wife): “From economist to explorer, you’ve transformed.”

Africa’s Sahel. The Ethiopian famine, heartbreakingly termed as a “distribution” issue. Refugee camps, where hunger, cholera, and cold mercilessly claim lives. Sebastião’s lens doesn’t flinch. Global attention shifts to Africa’s silent sufferings.

Yugoslavia. Rwanda post-genocide. Sebastião witnesses humanity’s nadir. Yet, Minas Gerais, his birthplace, beckons. Instituto Terra, his brainchild, reforests his ancestral land. From despair, hope sprouts anew as he captures thriving wildlife.

Watch Salt of the Earth for $3.99 on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ-My45meeo or Apple TV at https://tv.apple.com/us/movie/the-salt-of-the-earth/umc.cmc.70ld2b1uatyz926mvah3ciow0. Other options are at https://www.justwatch.com/ca/movie/the-salt-of-the-earth

2) The Way I See It

Dawn Porter directs “The Way I See It”, drawing parallels between two presidencies. If you’ve ever thought, “Pictures speak louder…”, this doc proves it. Pete Souza, Chief White House Photographer, brings Reagan and Obama to life. His camera doesn’t just capture moments—it tells stories.

Souza’s journey? Remarkable. From the Situation Room tension to Obama’s genuine laughs. Pete’s lens offers both warmth and gravity. His photos? Not mere pixels. They’re a timeline of American highs and lows. The doc delves deep, showing Pete’s evolution—observer to critic. His voice? Candid, revealing presidential contrasts.

Key scenes? Obama with kids—pure, genuine. Reagan’s contemplative moments—weight of leadership visible. Souza’s transformation—from capturing moments to defining legacies—becomes the doc’s beating heart. Why watch? It’s a visual masterclass in leadership. A lesson on the power of perspective.

You’ll leave with one thought: Leadership, when genuine, shines even in stills.

Watch The Way I See It on Apple TV and Amazon (both rent it for a few bucks). See https://www.justwatch.com/ca/movie/the-way-i-see-it-2020 for details.

3) McCullin

“McCullin” – a doc that exposes raw, frontline truth. Directed by Jacqui Morris and David Morris, the film spotlights Don McCullin, the UK’s most renowned war photographer.

Capturing conflict? He excelled. But at what price?

McCullin’s shots from Vietnam, Biafra, and Cyprus – they’re not just photos… they scream of war’s horrors. His camera lens acts like a bridge between battlefront chaos and our living room silence.

One scene: A shell-shocked US Marine – his gaze vacant. It’s a heart-wrenching portrayal of war’s mental toll. But McCullin’s battles aren’t just external. Internally, he grapples with the ethics of photographing tragedy.

This doc isn’t just about war. It’s about the man who showed it to us, unfiltered.

Watch McCullin for free on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILB2ALJbd6c (it has Spanish Sub-titles). Other options are at https://www.justwatch.com/uk/movie/mccullin.

4) Bill Cunningham New York

“Bill Cunningham New York” — this doc unveils the man behind the camera. Directed by Richard Press, we dive deep into Bill Cunningham’s life — the legendary New York Times fashion photographer.

He’s not just snapping clothes… he’s capturing history.

NYC’s streets are his runway. Every shot is a story. With his bike and blue jacket, Cunningham’s passion oozes. His subjects? Not just celebs. Everyday people, their style caught by his lens.

Key moments? Bill’s sheer joy in fashion’s fleeting moments. One iconic scene: Bill, amidst NYC hustle, catching a candid, perfect shot. His humility shines. His dedication? Unparalleled.

Watch Bill Cunningham New York for free on Kanopy (with a library card or student ID) at https://www.kanopy.com/en/product/bill-cunningham-new-york-1; or on HBO Max at https://play.max.com/movie/c5e3f5f8-2a36-4818-a620-02afbda251c4

5) Everybody Street

“Everybody Street” lets you tour NYC—through the eye of street photographers. Directed by Cheryl Dunn, this doc explores the pulses of the urban jungle.

Legendary photographers include Bruce Davidson, Jill Freedman, and Mary Ellen Mark. Through rain, shine, chaos… they click. Their photos? Not mere snaps. They’re the city’s heartbeat.

A standout: Bruce Davidson’s subway series… an era frozen in monochrome. Each shot? A silent conversation, a glimpse into NYC’s soul.

This doc shows the resilience of artists. Their passion? Infectious. Their courage? Admirable.

Watch Everybody Street for free (with ads) on Peacock, Freevee, Tubi and Plex. See details at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/everybody-street

6) What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann

“What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann” dives deep into the psyche of one of America’s most celebrated photographers. Directed by Steven Cantor, this doc immerses viewers into Sally Mann’s world—a world where boundaries blur between the personal and the artistic.

Mann’s hallmark? Intimacy. Whether it’s her controversial “Immediate Family” series, which documents her three children in candid, often vulnerable moments, or her “Deep South” collection, capturing haunting landscapes and decaying antebellum homes—her artistry stuns and provokes.

The doc doesn’t shy away. We witness Mann’s darkroom magic, the meticulous process of her wet plate collodion photography, and her grappling with criticism. A moment that lingers: Mann’s raw reflection on death, channeling her emotions into her “Body Farm” series—a macabre collection inspired by a forensic study facility.

Mann’s photos? They’re not just images. They’re reflections on love, loss, childhood, and decay.

For an unfiltered look at a visionary, dive into “What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann”.

Watch it for free on Kanopy (with library card or student ID) at https://www.kanopy.com/en/product/what-remains. You can also rent it on Apple TV. Full options are at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/what-remains-2005

7) Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks’ lens captured decades. He changed perceptions… and America. This doc dives deep, revealing a multifaceted genius. Gordon Parks – renowned photographer, filmmaker, writer. His iconic photos? Mesmerizing. His narrative? Poignant. Directed by Craig Rice, “Half Past Autumn” showcases Parks’ journey, his battles, triumphs, all.

Parks witnessed segregation. He documented urban life, civil rights, and more. His camera? Both shield and weapon. The doc’s highlights: Parks’ influential photo essays for “LIFE” magazine. His ability to blend art with journalism? Peerless.

Gordon’s struggles, personal and professional, resonate. Yet, he emerges undefeated, leaving an indelible mark. His “Shaft” series reshaped cinema. But it’s his photographs – raw, real, profound – that forever etch in memory.

You think you’ve seen Parks? Think again. Experience his legacy.

Watch it for free on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/72746145

8) Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier (directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel) dives into an enigmatic nanny’s secret life. The streets of Chicago became her canvas.

With a Rolleiflex camera, Maier captured moments (most of the Chicago streets)—candid, raw, intimate.

Over 100,000 negatives, found posthumously in a storage locker. The world missed out on her talent for decades. Why did she hide them?

John Maloof is the driving force behind this discovery. He bought her work, unsuspectingly, at an auction. His dedication? Unearthing her story. Through interviews and her own footage, the doc unveils Maier’s complex persona.

Surprises? Yes! Vivian’s demeanor clashed with her profound artistry. But her personal life… a sealed book.

Watch Finding Vivian Maier on AMC or Plex (with ads) or AppleTV ($). See https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/finding-vivian-maier for details.

9) Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato direct this journey on photographer Mapplethorpe. Remember “Inside Deep Throat”? They’re back, pulling no punches.

Through interviews and Robert’s own words, we get intimate insights. The artist’s rise in the 70s. His battles with AIDS. His eventual demise.

His black and white portraits? Iconic. Celebrities, flowers, male nudes… all captured with intense precision.

His Polaroids? A revelation. Yet, it’s his exploration of the BDSM subculture that stirs controversy.

The doc covers Mapplethorpe’s budding relationship with Patti Smith to his provocative explorations of the male nude.

Clocking in at 108 minutes, by the end, you’ll question the boundaries of art.

Critics said “Look at the pictures!” They meant it as a smear. The doc challenges YOU to do just that. Discover the genius. Face the taboo.

Watch Mapplethorpe on HBO Max at https://play.max.com/movie/cff1b8d5-e6e4-4bdd-a764-3925d5f6a888 or rent it on a number of streamers (see https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/mapplethorpe-look-at-the-pictures

10) Jay Myself

I loved Jay Myself, the 2019 doc directed by Stephen Wilkes.

This 79-minute journey explores the life of photographer Jay Maisel.

Wilkes showcases Maisel’s unique photography and his 50-year residence at 190 Bowery, NYC.

The doc opens with Maisel facing a major challenge: he must vacate his 36,000-square-foot, 100-year-old building in 5 months.

Maisel bought the Germania Bank building in 1966 for $102,000. It served as his home, studio, and storage for his vast collection.

Maisel has over 5,000 translucent color slides and half a million negatives.

His collection includes countless antiques and curiosities from his travels.

The doc follows Maisel as he captures vibrant images of everyday moments in NYC.

You witness Maisel’s eye for color, light, and composition. His photos, like “New York City, 1955” and “Coney Island, 1957,” are iconic.

Maisel reflects on his life’s work and the significance of the building that has been his sanctuary.

The barren walls and vacant spaces evoke deep nostalgia and mark the end of an era.

The doc includes historical photos and footage from Maisel’s early days at Cooper Union and Yale University.

You learn about Maisel’s role in the art world. He taught at the School of Visual Arts for over 40 years.

He mentored photographers like Joel Meyerowitz and Duane Michals.

The film touches on Maisel’s commercial work for clients like GE, Volkswagen, and Coca-Cola.

Wilkes also explores Maisel’s personal life, introducing his wife Linda and daughter Amanda.

Their insights show Maisel’s devotion to his family and art.

As moving day approaches, you feel the weight of Maisel’s decision to leave 190 Bowery.

In a poignant scene, Maisel takes one last photograph of his empty studio.

The building, once housing artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns, is a character itself.

The doc concludes with Maisel’s reflections on his legacy and the future of photography.

Jay Myself is a tribute to a living legend.

The doc is a must-see for anyone interested in photography, NYC history, or the creative process.

I loved “Jay Myself” so much that I dedicated a Web page for it with some more dertails and 5 different ways to watch/stream the doc: https://dailydoc.com/jay-myself/

11) Chasing Ice

“Chasing Ice” unearths the tangible impact of climate change. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the genius behind The Social Dilemma (2020), this doc is a visceral experience.

Enter James Balog. An acclaimed photographer—his mission? Capture glaciers vanishing.

The method? Time-lapse cameras across the Arctic. Their shots? Devastatingly beautiful, alarmingly real. One scene stands out: a Manhattan-sized glacier disintegrates.

This 75-minute visual masterpiece, released in 2012, doesn’t just feed your eyes. It educates, shakes foundations, compels action.

Rent Chasing Ice (for $) on Apple TV, Amazon and others. See https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/chasing-ice for details.

12) Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

“Click. Flash.” Annie Leibovitz’s lens captures a world most only dream of seeing. “Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens” dives deep into the journey of this renowned photographer.

Directed by her sister, Barbara Leibovitz, this 2007 doc paints an intimate portrait, spanning Annie’s early days at Rolling Stone to her high-profile shoots for Vanity Fair.

It’s more than just photography. We see Yoko Ono, post-Lennon… the Queen of England… Demi Moore, pregnant and bold on a cover.

These iconic images, combined with insights from celebrities and Leibovitz herself, showcase her unique ability to go beyond the surface.

Behind the fame, there’s vulnerability. Personal losses and financial challenges highlight Annie’s resilience.

Throughout the 83-minute runtime, her passion is palpable. Her work ethic? Unparalleled.

But it’s her dedication to capturing raw, authentic emotion that sets her apart.

Watch Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens for free on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvulXR9TUiU

13) Don’t Blink: Robert Frank

“Don’t Blink: Robert Frank” grabs your attention like a bold headline. Directed by Laura Israel (Windfall), this doc explores the life of Robert Frank, the groundbreaking Swiss-American photographer and filmmaker.

Released in 2015, the 82-minute doc dives into Robert’s storied career, with no fluff.

Frank shoots what others don’t see. Born in 1924 (age would be 99 if alive), Frank’s “The Americans” collection shattered norms.

The doc captures a climactic moment: the reveal of Frank’s controversial photo, “Charleston, 1955.” That photo is the controversial image of a Black woman nursing a white baby. Frank confesses his aim to confront the viewer with the racial discord of the era.

Frank breaks the stereotype, capturing a moment of shared humanity between Black and white people in the segregated South. His lens? Unbiased. His message? Loud and clear.

Watch Don’t Blink on Tubi and other options found at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/dont-blink-robert-frank

14) In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

“In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter” is like peeling an onion. Directed by Tomas Leach, this 75-minute doc released in 2013, unveils the legendary street photographer Saul Leiter.

Leiter never sought fame. Born in 1923, Leiter moved to New York with painting ambitions but found his muse through the lens.

A standout moment: Leiter discusses his photo “Snow,” taken in 1960.

In capturing a mundane snow-covered car, he illuminates the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Insights? Plenty. Leiter shares reflections—on life, love, regrets. A memorable lesson: “I have a deep-seated distrust and even contempt for people who are driven by ambition to conquer the world,” offering an anti-ambition perspective that’s rare.

A good scene:

LEITER: You know what’s wrong with photographers?
LEITER: They try too hard.

Watch In No Great Hurry for free (with library card or student ID) on Kanopy at https://www.kanopy.com/en/product/no-great-hurryr. Other options (including renting it on AppleTV and subscribing to GuideDoc to get it) are at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/in-no-great-hurry-13-lessons-in-life-with-saul-leiter

15) The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” is a heartfelt dive into a world of 20×24 Polaroids.

Directed by Errol Morris, renowned for “The Fog of War,” this 76-minute doc from 2016 captures the essence of Elsa Dorfman, a pioneer in large-format instant photography.

Dorfman, in her early 80s during filming, takes us through her Cambridge, Massachusetts studio. Her portfolio? A time capsule.

Allen Ginsberg, famous poets, families—the faces she’s captured are numerous. A scene to remember: Dorfman pulls out a “B-Side” of a young couple, imperfect but genuine, and discusses why she cherishes these flawed shots.

What sticks? Dorfman’s unassuming charisma. She lets us in on her thought process, her choices, her ‘mistakes’—and how they make her art human.

DORFMAN: People always want to look perfect.
MORRIS: And you?
DORFMAN: I want them to look human.

Watch on HBO Max at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/the-b-side-elsa-dorfmans-portrait-photography. Other options, including renting it on AppleTV, YouTube, Vudu and Google Play, are at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/the-b-side-elsa-dorfmans-portrait-photography

16) Monk With A Camera

“Monk with a Camera” is an intersection of spirituality and art. Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, directors of “Chris & Don: A Love Story,” bring you this 90-minute doc from 2014. It traces the unlikely path of Nicholas Vreeland, from privileged background to Tibetan monk.

Nicholas leaves behind New York glamor for a Tibetan monastery. He later becomes the abbot, a first for a Westerner. A moment that captures: Nicholas deciding to sell his photos to save the monastery. The decision is fraught, pitting spiritual duties against artistic passion.

Why watch? You’ll appreciate Nicholas’s sacrifice and transformation. The doc combines serene monastery shots with vivid photography. An absorbing duality.

NICHOLAS: I took a vow of poverty.
FRIEND: And now you’re selling art?
NICHOLAS: To serve a greater cause.

Watch Monk with a Camera for free on Kanopy at https://www.kanopy.com/en/product/monk-camera. Other $ rental options (Apple TV, Amazon, KINO) are at https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/monk-with-a-camera

17) Smash His Camera

“Smash His Camera” unravels a contentious debate: Is paparazzi photography art or intrusion?

Directed by Leon Gast, known for “When We Were Kings,” this 87-minute 2010 doc spotlights Ron Galella, a pioneer (and pariah_ in celebrity photography.

Galella courted both fame and infamy. He snapped icons like Jackie O and Marlon Brando, yet faced lawsuits and a broken jaw for his efforts. A climax: the court battle with Jackie O, resulting in a restraining order.

Galella’s determination raises questions—about privacy, about obsession, and about the public’s right to know.

Whether you see Galella as a rogue artist or an ethical misfit, one thing’s clear. His influence on modern paparazzi is immeasurable.

GALELLA: They call me a stalker.
LAWYER: And you say?
GALELLA: I’m just doing my job.

Watch “Smash His Camera” for free on Kanopy (with library card or student ID) at https://www.kanopy.com/en/product/smash-his-camera; on Prime Video (https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/0MNKEGE05DQEULPPKUL41KL33L/; or Tubi, Roku Channel, Vudu, Magnoical, PlutoTV and Plex (see https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/smash-his-camera for details).

17) Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light

“Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light” is a balancing act of aesthetics and emotion.

Part of the PBS “American Masters” series, this 86-minute doc from 1995 gives you a close-up of Richard Avedon, one of the 20th century’s leading photographers. Helen Whitney directs, making this an intellectual and emotional journey.

Avedon presents fashion as high art. His portfolio? Famous faces like Marilyn Monroe meet everyday people.

A highlight: Avedon’s reflection on his iconic portrait of a beekeeper, which captures the essence of a seemingly mundane profession, elevating it to art.

Reason to watch? Avedon’s interviews add depth—his philosophies, his struggles, his evolution from fashion to deeply personal portraits.

AVEDON: A portrait is not a likeness.
INTERVIEWER: What is it?
AVEDON: The person can’t hide.

Watch “Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light” for free on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XElT1udbFM

18) All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a 2022 juggernaut—equal parts biography and activism.

Directed by Laura Poitras, known for “Astro Noise,” the doc delves into the life of Nan Goldin.

Goldin captures societal fringes—LGBT subcultures, HIV/AIDS crisis. Then Oxycontin grips her, and P.A.I.N. is born.

A focal point? The first P.A.I.N. demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum in 2018.

The doc blends this with slideshows, reminiscent of Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.”

Why watch? For the battle cry. Goldin’s fight against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family rages on.

The doc’s structure, seven chapters, melds past and present—Goldin’s life, P.A.I.N. protests, and interviews with key allies like Patrick Radden Keefe.

GOLDIN: My photos are my history.
POITRAS: And now?
GOLDIN: Now, they’re my weapons.

Watch it on HBO Max at https://play.max.com/movie/9aabe565-ab76-45e8-861e-f868742452c6 (or more paid options liek Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu and Redbox) here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/all-the-beauty-and-the-bloodshed

19) A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks

“A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” unravels the story of Gordon Parks, a trailblazer in photojournalism and film.

Directed by John Maggio, this 91-minute doc America’s covers tumultuous periods, using his camera as a “weapon” for social justice.

Most remember his haunting photos during the Civil Rights Movement.

But don’t overlook the nuances: Parks’ lesser-known ventures into fashion photography and orchestral music.

Interviews with prominent figures like Ava DuVernay affirm his transformative power on both arts and activism.

PARKS: I chose my camera as a weapon.
INTERVIEWEE: Against what?
PARKS: Injustice. Racism.

Watch “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” on HBO Max at https://play.max.com/movie/62c382c0-4364-4781-8d02-3b26a3e626ae

Thanks for reading!