The most insightful photography docs on YouTube

We mined the Internet for the best full-length photography documentaries so you didn’t have to, feat. Nan Goldin, Tyrone LeBon and William Klein

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Nan Goldin Ballad of Sexual Dependency
from The Ballad of Sexual DependencyPhotography Nan Goldin

Cash-strapped photographers can learn a lot about their medium online. In fact some of the best nuggets of knowledge on the subject, from the very mouths of some of the most legendary lensmen of the 20th century, are just a few clicks away. Today anyone can enter Bruce Davidson’s darkroom, walk the streets of New York City with a camera-wielding Joel Meyerowitz, or witness Gregory Crewdson at work on the set of his mega-budget photo shoots. That is to say this stuff is all online and most of it is free; you just need to know where to look. So here are some of the best photography documentaries we discovered on YouTube. Thanks, Internet.

MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY (1972) – DIANE ARBUS 

Diane Arbus, a feted chronicler of the weird and wonderful, is often criticised for exploiting her subjects – dwarfs, giants, nudists, transgender people, etc. Yet she had compassion. She was genuinely curious. She looked at these people head-on and celebrated their peculiarities, the beauty of whatever it was that made them stand out in a crowd. As a result her photos are nothing less than staggeringly original; she never took a bland picture. As a person she was cripplingly shy and spoke in whispers, yet her pictures are like screams that make you sit up and pay attention. Filmed just a year after her suicide in 1971, this documentary features personal insights from her daughter and sheds light on how Arbus got to know her subjects.

NAN GOLDIN (2000) – NAN GOLDIN

Like Arbus, Nan Goldin doesn’t strive for technical excellence. In fact, befitting her subject matter – death, drugs, gender, sexuality, abuse – her work is intentionally rough around the edges. Her unflinching lens records her everyday life, and her photos combined make for a remarkably intimate, sad and shocking diary that she’s bravely opened up to the world. Here Goldin discusses the confessional nature of her work and how she needs her camera on her at all times.

PHOTOGRAPHY CAPTURING A MOVIE FRAME (2012) – GREGORY CREWDSON 

In a way, Gregory Crewdson’s work is depressing. None of us will ever make work like Crewdson’s without a hefty wad of cash. To create his epic, Hollywood-scale shots the meticulous photographer often hires real movie actors (William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, among others) to perform for his camera, and on set he’ll brandish a megaphone as if he were channeling the spirit of Stanley Kubrick. The results, as you can imagine, are decidedly cinematic and come with a formidable price tag. The stories in his pictures are told via lighting and colour, recalling Edward Hopper’s Hitchcockian paintings both stylistically and thematically. Images of suburbia at twilight are eerily lit. Something sinister is about to happen, or maybe it already did. Crewdson wants you to participate in the storytelling.

IN THE REAL WORLD (2005) – WILLIAM EGGLESTON

“Perfectly boring” is how one critic at the New York Times summed up Eggleston’s work. I guess some people in the early 70s just weren’t ready for his colourful shots of suburbia at its most mundane – close-ups of light bulbs, vending machines and Coca-Cola bottles. The reason for that widespread vitriol may have stemmed from the work being in colour, which was generally frowned upon by sniffy critics and photographers alike. That is, until Eggleston’s 1976 exhibition at the MoMA, which is now widely marked as the moment colour photography was accepted as an art in its own right. Today he’s celebrated for making art from the unspectacular – or perhaps more accurately, from the spectacularly banal – and for his masterly use of colour.

THE MANY LIVES OF WILLIAM KLEIN (2012) – WILLIAM KLEIN

Klein is a pioneer of 20th century photography but there’s one shot, one split-second moment, that he will always be remembered for: the image of a kid thrusting a toy pistol into his viewfinder, with a look of mock-menace on his face. It grabs you instantly, it has personality, and it tells you a lot about the man behind the lens: a brazen city stroller, never without his camera, hunting for that shot that leaps out of the frame. The Many Lives of William Klein explores how he paved the way for street photography as an art in the 50s, and his subsequent involvement in fashion photography.

NOBODY'S HERE BUT ME (1994)  CINDY SHERMAN 

Cindy Sherman is an enigma and hard to pin down. In her famous “Film stills” series she appeared in front of the lens as various recognisable female character tropes from the movies – the Hitchcock blonde, the nurse, etc. She was the subject and the photographer and the lines between the two became blurry. In this mid-90s BBC documentary, we glimpse the real-life Sherman as she films herself at work in her studio. This is one to savour.

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY (1981) – JOEL MEYEROWITZ

Street photographers can learn a lot from Joel Meyerowitz. Here we spend a day in New York City with the master lensman as he shares his many insights on hunting for images, knowing where to look, where to stand, spending hours a day on the streets and on his feet in order to find intimacy in the throngs of people that crowd the streets. He talks fast and he talks a lot. Take notes and try to keep up.

REELY AND TRULY (2014) – TYRONE LEBON

Tyrone Lebon’s 30-minute documentary spotlights some of the best contemporary filmmakers across the globe, including Juergen Teller, Sean Vegezzi, Nobuyoshi Araki, Takashi Homma, Ari Marcopoulos, Jill Freedman, Tim Barber and more. In the film, Lebon juggles his Super-8, 35mm, and 65mm cameras to capture the photographers on the street, in their studios and in their homes, touching on some deep questions about the nature of truth and reality in relation to the medium.

A PORTRAIT OF ROBERT FRANK (2005) – ROBERT FRANK

Robert Frank emigrated to the States from Switzerland in the late 40s and always – crucially – had an outsider’s perspective on the country. He saw uniquely American things that locals didn’t. This was key when it came to producing his landmark work ‘The Americans’ in 1958. In it he travelled by car across America, taking over 27,000 photographs, from which he sequenced the best 83 for the book. Fittingly, Jack Kerouac wrote an introduction to the book and the following year appeared in Frank’s first foray into filmmaking, Pull My Daisy. This BBC documentary illuminates his life and work.

CLOSE UP PHOTOGRAPHERS AT WORK (2009)  BRUCE DAVIDSON & SUSAN MEISELAS, STEVE MCCURRY, BRIGITTE LACOMBE, MIRU KIM, JAY MAISEL

This episode of Close Up, directed by the late, great documentarian Albert Maysels, features photographers as diverse as Susan Meiselas, Steve McCurry, Bruce Davidson, Brigitte Lacombe, Miru Kim and Jay Maisel. It looks at how they work, where and when they work, and touches on the importance of producing work as part of a series. This is especially true of Bruce Davidson, for whom projects and the body of work forms the whole. “If you wanna see the work, you need to see all of it,” he explains. On top of these insights, we’re also gifted rare access to the place where the magic happens: Davidson’s darkroom.

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