9 Great Documentaries on Photography, Art, and Design

To take beautiful pictures you must understand what is beautiful. Aesthetics, taste, and style defines an artist. Even if you are born naturally enough with a fantastic eye, it still must be developed, cultivated, and matured. Everything else is technique, which is mechanical and can be easily learned by anyone. Being a good photographer is no different. It’s not just about knowing the camera settings, how to manipulate light, or how to choose the right gear. It’s about being able to appreciate what is beautiful, what is different, what is unique, and sharing your vision with the rest of the world.

One accessible way of developing your tastes is to study what society considers beautiful. It’s a starting point. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and tastes differ, but it’s not as purely subjective as you may think. Having studied enough of it, you’ll soon realize that there are repeating themes, rhythms, and philosophies that transcend. Here are 9 fairly popular selections I have chose for you to explore.

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens (Photographer, Biography, Journalism)

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Available for rent on Youtube or free on Veoh, this is a biographical account of Annie Leibovitz‘s massively successful career. From her drug filled beginnings at Rolling Stone to her transition into the fashion world via Vanity Fair and Vogue, you’ll watch and come to know the most influential woman in American photography, probably of all time. Very good film.

Bill Cunningham New York (Photographer, Biography, Fashion)

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Available for free with commercials on Hulu or via subscription on Netflix, this is a biographical work of the New York Times fashion/street/documentary photographer Bill Cunningham. You’ll see him riding his bicycle through Manhattan, snapping pictures of the fashionably eccentric or attending black-tie evening soirees, snapping pictures of celebrities and moguls. Very interesting film.

Chasing Beauty: The Ugly Side of Being Pretty (Modeling, Behind-the-scenes, Opinion)

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Available on Amazon Prime Instant Video, this is an investigative documentary looking at the fashion and modeling industry. They interview photographers, models, casting agents, designers, plastic surgeons, beauty queens turned therapists, and more. It is less than objective and you know they are trying to drive at an angle from the very beginning, but it’s still informative and eye opening to an extent.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Street Art, Graffiti, Underground)

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What is the defining fine art genre of the last twenty years following pop art period ending in the 1980s? Who is currently the biggest and most exciting painter/artist since the likes of WarholHerring, and Basquiat? Traditional gallery high art and the heavily promoted Justin Beiber-esque Damien Hirst? Certainly not. The answer is graffiti and the famously mysterious Banksy. If you’re uncomfortable with the term graffiti, you can call it street art.

Available for free on Youtube, this Oscar nominated film is a biopic of the underground street art scene featuring big names such as Shepard Fairey, InvaderAndré, and of course, Banksy. This is a fascinating and guerrilla look into a rich subculture that was marginalized, scorned, and finally now embraced by the mainstream. Mainstream is always so slow.

Helvetica (Typography, Philosophy, History)

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What’s in a font? A lot. Typography has defined our post-post-industrial world in every aspect of life from roadsigns to advertising to your computer screen. Available on Netflix, Helvetica the film takes us through the history of modern typography and how this one Swiss made typeface has revolutionize the look of the modern world.

My Architect: A Son’s Journey (Architecture, Biography, Design)

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Quick, name the most famous architect of our current generation. I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Adrian Smith. There are many. But one lesser known American legend is Louis Kahn. Available for free on Vimeo, this Oscar nominated documentary is a tribute to a talented architect from the point of view from his son. A fantastic film if you’re into design and architecture.

Objectified (Design, Philosophy, History)

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From the same director as Helvetica, Gary Hustwit brings us a glimpse of the philosophy and design that goes behind everyday objects. Available on Netflix, this film interviews countless famous modern designers including Dieter RamsNaoto Fukasawa, Johnathan Ives, Kharim Rashid, and Chris Bangle. Even the simplest objects that you own was once just an idea a person’s mind.

Samsara (Cinematography, Eye Candy, Travel)

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Available for free on the Internet Archive or on Netflix, the best description of this film is pure diabetes-inducing eye candy. There is little to no dialogue, just stunning stunning visuals filmed over 5 years, on 5 continents, and in 25 countries, from sacred temples to natural wonders to industrial machines. Watch this one on a big screen. It’s great for testing out new HDTVs as well.

Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film (Instant Film, History, Culture) 

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Available on Netflix, this rather rose tinted film recalls the history and legacy of a once small Boston company that changed the world for a significant number of decades. There’s been only two companies that massively produced instant film, Polaroid and Fujifilm. Polaroid’s instant film business has ceased and this is a moving tribute to a once great American icon.

Tell us what you think about these films and please make suggestions in the comment section. We’re always looking for interesting films for the weekend. Happy Friday.