My Two Favorite Photography Documentaries

My two favorite photography documentaries have something in common.   See if you can guess what it is.

1. Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman

Buy it or stream it on Amazon here

I love so many things about this documentary.  

First, if you admire mid-century modern architecture, as I do, then these photos will leave your jaw on the floor.  Shulman was the master architectural photographer of this period, and his work is simply stunning.

Second, the experience of seeing buildings through Shulman's eyes, and hearing him explain his approach to photography, is a chance to sit at the feet of one of the giants of photography and absorb his wisdom.  Every minute of it is pure pleasure.

Finally, I enjoy the character of Shulman himself, with his gentle and humorous approach to life, as he looks back on a long and successful career.   It's a moving tribute to a man who triumphed in his field and who remains humble and cheerful even as age slowly robs him of his ability to do the work he loves.  I can only hope to have half his wit, charm, and dignity if I should reach that age.

This documentary came to my attention when I received a book about Shulman as a gift.

The book that turned me on to Shulman

See it on Amazon

Unfortunately the book seems to be out of print, but it's still available from third-party sellers on Amazon.  (You can also find many other books of Shulman's photos, such as this and this).

This beautiful book has earned a permanent place on my coffee table, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  Open it to any page and find yourself inspired.

I love having the book as a companion to the documentary, because in the film the photos go by so quickly.  With the book you can linger on them as long as you like.  The two together make a complete package for appreciating Shulman.

I even discovered a photo in this book of a building I walk past every day and pay no attention to.  That's because the outside of the building (a parking garage) is utterly uninspiring.  But the inside, when seen through Shulman's eye and lens, is stunning.

The inner spiral ramp of the parking garage near my apartment.  (right-hand page)

After learning that this mid-century gem was a few blocks from my apartment, I went over there with my photo-partner-in-crime Julie to try to get a photo from the Shulman angle.  But before we could even squeeze off a single frame, we were chased out of this public parking garage by an overzealous security guard who has apparently been indoctrinated with the idea that all photographers are potential terrorists.  (Never mind that our tax dollars pay for both the building and his salary.  We were forbidden to photograph it.)  This sad trend is now inescapable in American cities, and you can find some commentary on it here and here.


2. Bill Cunningham New York

My second favorite photography documentary is Bill Cunningham New York.  

You can stream it free with an Amazon prime subscription, or get it on DVD from Netflix.

Unlike the Shulman documentary, which is about an incredible body of photographic work, this movie is about the love of photography, and about a lifestyle devoted to that love.   Cunningham is almost monk-like in his humble, life-long dedication to his craft.

As he rides his 29th bicycle (the previous 28 were stolen) around New York City taking photos of street fashion, you see a man living every day, every moment, doing the exact thing that he was meant to do.  And he does it uncompromisingly.

To ensure his artistic freedom, he spurns money, almost to a perverse degree, refusing to cash checks that he has earned, while living in near poverty.

"If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do, kid," he explains.

I don't think I've ever seen a man more humble than Bill Cunningham.  He is almost a parody of humility, with his gentle humor, self-effacing manner, and constant, disarming smile.  If Mr. Rogers had become a fashion photographer, he would be Bill Cunningham.

Even when he is whisked in to sit at the front row of a Paris fashion show, he seems genuinely surprised that he was let in the door at all.  And he constantly smiles in childlike wonder at how lucky he is to be wherever he finds himself.

For me this film is uplifting and heart-wrenching in almost equal degrees.  It reminds me that your income means nothing when you do work that you deeply love.  And it reminds me that it's possible to go through life, even in hostile New York City, with a joyous smile and a kind word for everyone.  But it also reminds me that there can be painful costs to such single-minded dedication.

As you have probably figured out by now, the common thread in these two documentaries is a look backward over a long, productive, and beloved career in photography.  Each film is a fitting capstone to a career and a well-deserved tribute to the man it honors.  

We can learn from them, a little about photography, and a lot about life.

Do you have a favorite photography documentary?  Share it with us in the comments below

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