Both Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe—with their controversial nudes, their celebrity subjects and their undeniable artistry—helped transform photography into the in-demand, valuable medium that it is today.
By contrast, belovedNew York Times street photographer Bill Cunningham shunned the spotlight, as did Vivian Maier, whose extraordinary street photos only came to light after her death. And you might not have heard of portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman if not for Errol Morris’s documentary about her.
While the five documentaries that follow are a great place to start, we also recommend Agnes Varda’s Oscar-nominated Faces, Places and Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens (directed by her sister, Barbara).
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (2020)
“He was a little bit of a pervert, but so am I, so that’s okay,” laughs Grace Jones, one of many of Newton’s subjects interviewed for Gero von Boehm’s documentary. Newton famously photographed her in a series of striking nude shots with then-boyfriend Dolph Lundgren.
Isabella Rossellini, whom Newton shot with David Lynch circa Blue Velvet, has a more nuanced take on the late German photographer, “He photographed women the way [Leni] Riefenstahl photographed men: There was something powerful and beautiful, but also frightening and repellent.”
Were Newton’s nudes empowering the women he photographed or was he simply objectifying them? One of his models says Helmut was holding a mirror up to society, “and there’s a lot of misogyny” to reflect.
Newton’s own take on his often controversial work: “I’m a professional voyeur. I have no interest at all in the people I photograph. The girls, their private life …. I’m interested in what I and my camera see. The outside. People tell me I don’t photograph the soul. I photograph a face, a body. The soul? I don’t get that.”
Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (2016)
This made-for-HBO doc directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato opens with Republican Sen. Jesse Helms angrily waving some of Mapplethorpe’s explicit photos around during a session of Congress and demanding, “Look at the pictures!”
The pictures were something the art world—and the world at large—had never seen before: homoerotic BDSM photos often featuring Mapplethorpe himself.
Friend Fran Lebowitz laments that she threw away several of his photos. Back in the ’80s, no one, not even the ambitious artist, would dream that one of his photos that originally sold for $250 would fetch more than $300,000 at auction. Mapplethorpe’s greatest fame—and controversy—came after his death in 1989 of AIDS.
Mapplethorpe began by photographing his muses and lovers, including then-girlfriend Patti Smith. As he delved further into the gay BDSM underground of New York City, he turned his camera on that world, as well. While his brother Edward (also a photographer) says Robert loved shocking people, Mapplethorpe himself said, “I was always amazed that it shocked people.”
Like Newton, he’s been accused of objectifying his subjects. Mapplethorpe said, “I don’t think it’s important who’s in the photographs if the pictures are good.” But he also believed in “exploiting” himself as much as any of his subjects, as in the infamous self portrait with whip.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
Although Bill Cunningham rubbed elbows with the wealthy and famous while snapping photos for his two New York Times columns, he preferred to remain behind the camera.
Cunningham’s column “On the Street” documented changing street fashion for decades. He was interested in seeing how everyday people dressed and couldn’t care less about celebrities. (In Paris at one point in the film, he declines to photograph Catherine Denueve, shrugging, “She wasn’t wearing anything interesting.”)
Cunningham, who passed away in 2016 at age 87, lived modestly in a tiny storeroom in Carnegie Hall that was crammed with file cabinets holding every negative he ever took. But he was right at home among New York’s top-tier society, including Brooke Astor. As Anna Wintour famously said, “We all get dressed for Bill.”
As director Richard Press’ film shows, Cunningham simply lived to shoot, even taking pictures at his own awards ceremony when he was given a prestigious award by the French Ministry of Culture. He puts down his camera just long enough to accept the award.
One fashion maven describes him as an égalitaire, a good-natured man who shot fashions and people he found interesting, regardless of social status, age or gender.
He refused to take credit—and sometimes even refused payment—for his work, saying, “It’s not photography. Any real photographer would say, ‘He’s a fraud.’ Well, they’re right. I’m just about documenting what I see.”
Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Now celebrated Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier’s work was almost completely unknown in her lifetime. This Oscar-nominated documentary unravels the mystery of who this woman was and why even her closest friends had never seen her work.
A box of her photos were sold at auction in 2007 to John Maloof, who quickly realized that he had just discovered one of the major artists of the 20th century. (Maloof directs the documentary along with Charlie Siskel.) By the time he was able to place a name to the photos taken in the ’50s and ’60s, Maier had passed away.
He began printing and sharing her photos with the public and her work became a sensation, spurring exhibits from New York to L.A.
Weeding through the more than 100,000 negatives, rolls of undeveloped film and 8mm and 16mm film took years, as did piecing together her life.
She spent years as a nanny to several families and her now-grown charges recall how she would drag them to the seedier sides of town in her obsessive quest for photos.
That might have been a questionable decision for a nanny, but it proved an enriching one for lovers of photography.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2016)
Oscar-winner Errol Morris’s documentary is a loving portrait not just to Elsa Dorfman and her subjects—who included Bob Dylan and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg—but to the nature of memory and time.
Dorman specialized in large-format portraits. She used a Polaroid 20-by-24-inch camera, one of only six ever made. When Polaroid declared bankruptcy in 2008, Dorfman snapped up the last available film in that format.
Besides her famous friends, she also shot family portraits in her studio. The “B-sides” are the photos that the clients didn’t choose. Dorfman, who passed away in May 2020, kept them all.
“Portraits have always been what’s interesting to me,” she tells Morris. She says she liked to shoot people when they’re happy, adding, “I have this idea that it’s my role in the universe to make people feel better.”