The Rise of the Photographer Film: Why we’re now experiencing the golden age of the photographic documentary

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The past few years has been referred to by many as the ‘Golden Age of Photo Book Publishing’, while others argue that what we are actually experiencing is not a golden age but in fact a tsunami of photo books with a resultant drop in both the quality of photography and final artifact. I don’t want to get into that argument here, but I do want to suggest that what we are definitely experiencing is a golden age of films made about photographers, both living and passed, and perhaps a similar spectrum of both quality and quantity.

Over the past year I have watched recent films documenting the work, life and times of all these photographers: Cecil Beaton, Fay Godwin, Marilyn Stafford, Dorothy Bohm, Saul Leiter, Jane Bown, Elsa Dorfman, Bill Cunningham, Robert Frank, Vivian Maier, Don McCullin, Jane Bown, Vivian Maier, William Klein, Joseph Koudelka, David Hurn, Gregory Crewdson, Mick Rock, Enrique Metinides and Sebastião Salgado. Forthcoming films I have heard about include documentaries on Chris Hondros and Garry Winogrand. Add to that the films dealing with those connected with photography, such as publisher Gerhard Steidl, the Ostkreuz agency and the nightly news photographers of Los Angeles, and it is not hard to see that there is no shortage of material to view and films being made about the photographic medium. I’m sure you can add even more to this list.

But why is this? There is no doubt that the rise of the documentary film as a genre of filmmaking is closely connected to a number of technological developments of moving image creation. As photographers, we are surely all now comfortable with the fact that our DSLR cameras give us high-quality moving image functionality, that high-quality video cameras are now within the financial reach of many, and that digital capture has removed the financial consequences once aligned with purchasing and developing film stock. Add to this the easy availability of editing software such as Adobe Premiere Pro and Audition with an increasing confidence amongst photographers when capturing sound and it is no surprise that many photographers are making films about the subject they know best and feel most passionate about.

But the rise in the creation of documentary films is also linked to new forms of dissemination and distribution becoming available. Any subscriber to services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime will be only too familiar with the number of documentaries available to them and therefore the content needed to keep such platforms fresh and updated. If those documentaries deal with elements of popular culture and the developed narrative of recognized names, then all the better!

So, documentaries are easier than ever to make and to share and to see. However, the films I have mentioned and many that you will have seen here have not all come from the same financial starting point. Some, such as the David Hurn and William Klein films, were funded and created by the BBC; others, such as the Cecil Beaton film, are funded by the French production and distribution company StudioCanal; whilst the others are funded by a myriad of production companies, individuals and corporate entities. All presumably with a hope of at least recouping their investment or possibly making some small profit. In essence that is the filmmaking process: a risky business financially based on passion, hope, and to some extent luck.

But it does not have to be this way. It is possible to create a documentary film with no external funding of any kind, if you have access to some cameras, microphones, editing software, and of course a good story! That is exactly what I have been doing over the past 12 months and I have to say that the process and experience has been both enlightening and enjoyable.

Back in 2010, I was given the position of editor of a UK-based magazine titled Professional Photographer. My brief was to reimagine the magazine, and this is what I set out to do. My changes were not universally approved of by its existing readership, but slowly and surely the tide began to turn. The magazine began to be recognized as one with a reason to exist and to engage with. One letter I received at that time was from an experienced photographer, writer and educator Joe Partridge. “They will never let you keep doing what you are doing,” he said. “You are just like Bill Jay and you know what happened to him.” I didn’t, but the name Bill Jay stuck deep within my memory banks.

So, when my friend Robin Gillanders mentioned Bill Jay and his book Occam’s Razor to me a year or so ago, a very bright light came on. Bill’s way of writing and beliefs concerning photography were an echo of my own. I knew nothing about him, his life or his death, but I knew that I would make a film about him. A phone call to a filmmaking friend resulted in his agreement to help me with the task at hand, and we began to make a film—or at least to research a film, contacting people whom we might be able to interview and who could possibly have archival material that would help us in our adventure. Patient searches through E-bay produced props, books and magazines, all of which we felt could be useful. As our research continued, our film began to take shape. Interviews took place in person, via Skype and thanks to both old and new photographer friends who kindly agreed to join the project without payment. A soundtrack was written and performed by two friends, again without payment. We were all on an adventure to create a piece of work which we all considered to be important with maximum creative freedom. No funding meant no interference, and this is what we all wanted.

And this is the central reason as to why I believe that so many films focusing on photographers and photojournalists are being made. Photographers are telling stories they know and understand because they now can without having to become part of the established filmmaking industry, utilizing the power of the online photographic community to support, market and share their projects from inception to completion.

If you add to this the fact that so many of our great photographers are reaching an age where it is important to tell their stories whilst we still can — a reality I addressed in a previous article — it can be of little surprise that we are experiencing the deluge of photographer-based films that we are. A deluge that is fast creating a vital historical archive of the past 50 years or so of the photographic medium. Perhaps it is now time for those in positions to protect that history and start to identify the importance of these films and to collate these films into dedicated festivals and collections.

It is our role as visual storytellers to identify stories and to tell them in the most appropriately powerful way available to us. The full-length documentary film is now one of those options within our reach, and as photographers we should have no difficulty in finding important stories to tell that evidence the history of our medium. Many including myself are already engaged in that process, but there is always space for more.


Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay (see will be screened across the UK and the US in 2018.

You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.

Text © Grant Scott 2018

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