On August 19 we celebrate World Photography Day 2023 – and as it conveniently falls on the weekend, it's the perfect time to settle in with one of the best photography-themed movies or documentaries ever made.
Our list below contains some real crackers, from Exposing Muybridge (starring Gary Oldman) to the documentary classic Finding Vivian Maier and the all-time great feature City of God. All of them great watches and use the lens of photography to explore wider themes, from global warming to album covers.
Once you've made your pick, you can watch safe in knowledge that you're doing it in honor of something a bit more significant than National Avocado Day, too. After all, World Photography Day is a genuinely important date – it was on that day in 1839 that the Daguerrotype process was officially gifted to the world (or, in modern lingo, went open source).
What's the Daguerrotype process, other than a great name for a prog band? It was the chemical method developed by French artist and physicist Louis Daguerre, which ultimately became the first commercial photographic process and, you know, pretty much laid the groundwork for 20th century photography. Not bad work for a Monday, as it was on 19 August 1839.
As the Instagram-obsessed inheritor of this amazing technology, it's arguably your duty to add one of the excellent docs or movies below to your weekend schedule. Or perhaps binge the whole lot over the two days and dazzle your co-workers with your photography anecdotes. Either way, Louis Daguerre would approve – and there's nothing more important than that.
World Photography Day 2023: documentaries
Exposing Muybridge (2022)
The big bang moment for movies (or 'motion pictures') was a Victorian technique called chronophotography – with the first and most famous example being 'A Horse in Motion', captured by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. The story behind the creation of this landmark piece, shot with a row of 12 cameras, would be interesting enough on its own. But the fact that Muybridge himself was also a fascinatingly eccentric character makes this the perfect World Photography Day watch.
'Exposing Muybridge' assembles a charismatic raft of art historians and Muybridge fans, including the actor Gary Oldman, to bring the cinema pioneer's story to life. There's analysis of Muybridge's landscape photography techniques in comparison to greats like Ansel Adams. But this biography also has enough to impress non-photography fans or anyone who's seen Jordan Peele's Nope, which features 'A Horse in Motion' in its early scenes. The ideal taster for what is surely an inevitable biopic.
- US: stream it on Amazon Prime (free) / YouTube / Apple TV (all $3.99)
- UK: watch it on Curzon (£4.00 or free for members)
The Velvet Queen (2022)
Wildlife photography demands serious patience, which some find dull and others see as a magical doorway to philosophical musings about life itself. If you're in the latter camp, you'll love this documentary about the quest of wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and the travel writer Sylvain Tesson to find the rare, and seemingly mythical, Tibetan snow leopard.
It might have Planet Earth-level cinematography, but that's where the similarities end. Instead, the The Velvet Queen marries a slow, meandering pace with a beautiful soundtrack from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to create a hypnotic journey inside the heart of photojournalism.
- US: stream it on Amazon ($4.99)
- UK: stream it on Virgin TV Go (free) / Amazon (£3.49) / YouTube (£3.49)
Icon: Music Through the Lens (2021)
This six-part documentary is a real treat for lovers of music, photography and the metaphoric duets between the two art forms. With so many iconic photos to discuss, it’s no wonder they needed six hours to get through it all.
The series is divided into distinct categories, including album cover art, music posters, touring photography and magazine covers, and ends with a look at how photography fits in with contemporary music and culture.
With input from some of the biggest names in photography, as well as imagery from major artists from the world of music, you’ll probably feel compelled to binge the whole lot in one setting.
- US: Stream it on Amazon Prime Video
- UK: Watch it on Sky Arts
Abstract: Platon (2019)
Abstract: The Art of Design is a Netflix docuseries, with two seasons, putting the spotlight on the creative process of some of the most influential figures in fields such as graphic design, product design and yes, you guessed it, photography. The 45-minute episode in question (S1E07) turns the lens on Platon Antoniou, a world-renowned photographer infamous for his studio portraits of world-leaders and celebrities in music, movies and sports, that have decorated the covers of Time, Wired and Rolling Stone magazines to name a few.
Charting his own background, a behind the scenes of a shoot with a world-leader in his New York studio, and breaking out of those confines to overseas NGO work, there’s some cracking insight from Platon, and what’s consistent throughout is the importance of human connection. “Taking a picture is very technical, but 99.9% is spent on this connection, that allows me to reach someone, and through that connection there’s just a chance that you’re going to feel something too,” says Platon. “You’re looking for a moment when you feel you’re as close to the soul as possible. That’s what good design is…and that’s when you make an icon”.
The Salt of the Earth (2015)
It's sometimes a difficult watch, but this powerful portrait of Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado is essential viewing. Few camera-wielders, perhaps aside from Don McCullin (see below), have witnessed the harrowing sights that Salgado has documented in his work across Brazil, Rwanda and Papua. And even fewer are able to articulate their roots as engagingly as this master photographer and economist.
While Salgado is clearly has great compassion for his subjects, his experiences also compel him to call human history "a tale of madness" and label our species as "ferocious, terrible animals". After watching this, it's hard to disagree, but this powerful, monochromatic documentary does also let in some rays of optimistic light to balance out the human darkness.
Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2014)
One of the best-known and most renowned photographers of the 20th Century, you’ll no doubt recognize many of Dorothea Lange’s iconic images, with 'Migrant Mother' being probably the most famous. Indeed, Lange’s photography is credited with bringing attention to the many and varied problems faced by her outsider subjects.
This documentary, made by Lange’s granddaughter Dyanna Taylor, explores more the photographer’s artistic vision, what her powerful photographs meant and how Lange contributed to the wider world, especially at a time when it was far more difficult for female photographers than it is now.
Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Vivian Maier's legend is as strong today as when her story first leapt from some undeveloped negatives, which were unearthed during the making of this 2013 documentary. The New York nanny wasn't, it turns out, simply a reclusive oddball, but one of the best street photographers of the last century.
This classic doc weaves together Vivian Maier's stunning snapshots of 1950s life with moving commentary from the people who knew her – or at least thought they did. In a refreshing contrast to our Instagram-saturated world, Maier never shared her photos with anyone. And part of this film's tension is the feeling that, despite the quality of her work, she'd perhaps have preferred it to have stayed that way.
Chasing Ice (2012)
This timelapse-fest might have been shot with a batch of relatively old Nikon D200s, but its theme is still very current. Chasing Ice's arresting 'portraits' of receding glaciers highlight one of the most visible manifestations of global warming, which is throwing up ever more extreme weather events ten years on.
Rather than bash you over the head with its message, this documentary calmly lets its lead photographer James Balog and, more importantly his incredible timelapses, do the talking. His 'Extreme Ice Survey' study was a bit more complicated than your average Raspberry Pi project, but the team's patience is rewarded with some startling footage that includes a Manhattan-sized glacier imploding on film.
- US: stream in on Google Play ($2.99) Amazon ($4.99)
- UK: stream it on Google Play (£2.49) Amazon (£3.49)
A powerful film that's as hard-hitting as the photojournalist's war photos, this moving documentary explores how Don McCullin took some of his most famous shots in conflicts in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Northern Ireland.
McCullin is the perfect subject for a photography documentary and not just because he's so often been on the frontline of 20th century history. He's as candid about the shots he didn't take as the ones he did, and the result is an insightful look at the fine line between empathy and voyeurism.
World Photography Day 2023: movies
The good thing about film photography is that its slow pace of development is a handy plot device for creating dramatic tension. Particularly when the film in question can only be processed by a single lab that's about to be closed down forever.
That's the crux of Kodachrome, a photography-themed road movie that stars Ed Harris and Jason Sudeikis as a father-son duo who face a race to get to Kansas before terminal illness and the march of technology extinguish some precious family memories. It might not reinvent the genre, but Kodachrome's strong acting and cinematography make it a visually stunning tribute to the titular film stock.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
It may have divided critics at the time of its release in 2013, but we remain fans of this warm-hearted profile of a staffer at the iconic Life Magazine. The titular character (played by Ben Stiller) is on a quest to find a missing film negative, which is to be used for the cover of the last-ever print version of the magazine.
Sure, the concept is a little dated (presumably a quest to discover a missing digital negative might have fewer thrills and spills), but don’t let that put you off.
Although a little twee in places, it’s a charmingly fun film with enough to keep you interested across its run time. It’ll appeal especially to those who remember Life – and the golden age of photojournalism – at its greatest, but even if you’ve never heard of the magazine before, there’s still plenty to keep you entertained.
One Hour Photo
Now 20 years old, this thriller is a bit of a cult classic. The concept of a One Hour Photo will be a bit alien to younger readers, but it harks back to a gentler time when we needed to get our family snaps developed. Many supermarkets and shopping centers offered a 'one hour' service, where they’d rush developing and printing through so you could pick up your pictures at the end of your shopping trip.
For regular customers, this meant that a human (rather than Google Photos) would have access to to everything you ever took a picture of. And it’s with this thought in mind that the central character – played masterfully by Robin Williams in a disturbing turn that's world’s apart from his more comedic roles – becomes obsessed with one particular family.
What follows is a creepy exploration of the impacts of that obsession over a beautifully shot 90 minutes. Don’t be put off by the film’s age and the now-dated concept, it still holds its own nearly two-decades later. And with the recent resurgence in film photography, perhaps it’s not such an unusual storyline after all.
- US: stream it on Amazon / Apple TV / YouTube (all $3.99)
- UK: stream it now on Disney Plus / Virgin TV Go
City of God (2002)
Almost exactly 20 years on from its release in Brazil, City of God stands up as a classic coming-of-age tale that follows a budding photographer who's drawn into documenting Rio's slum gangs and drug-fuelled violence.
While the narrator's photographic skills are central, so too is City of God's cinematography, with its shaky handheld style creating a documentary feel that captures the energy and chaos of the streets. If you enjoyed Netflix's Top Boy, then this all-time great gangster movie is a must-watch.
- US: stream it on HBO / Amazon ($4.19) / DVD around $6
- UK: DVD from around £6 / stream it on Amazon (£3.49) / Apple TV (£3.49)
The Bang Bang Club (2011)
FUR: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2007)
Blow Up (1967)
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Mark is TechRadar's Senior news editor. Having worked in tech journalism for a ludicrous 17 years, Mark is now attempting to break the world record for the number of camera bags hoarded by one person. He was previously Cameras Editor at Trusted Reviews, Acting editor on Stuff.tv, as well as Features editor and Reviews editor on Stuff magazine. As a freelancer, he's contributed to titles including The Sunday Times, FourFourTwo and Arena. And in a former life, he also won The Daily Telegraph's Young Sportswriter of the Year. But that was before he discovered the strange joys of getting up at 4am for a photo shoot in London's Square Mile.
- Timothy ColemanCameras editor