The subject of Laura Poitras’s acclaimed documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is the even more acclaimed photographer Nan Goldin. The film’s chief focus is Goldin’s crusade against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, and its marketing of opioids.
The film has won a raft of awards, including a Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and best documentary prizes from critics groups in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. It’s widely considered a frontrunner for this year’s Oscar for best documentary feature.
Goldin, a Lexington native, is best known for her epic slide show “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” a visual chronicle of New York bohemian life in the ‘80s. “All the Beauty” is also about Goldin’s photography and her family background. The documentary takes its title from a phrase once used by Goldin’s older sister.
There’s an obvious relationship between photography (still pictures) and film (motion pictures). That relationship extends further. Noted photographers have dabbled in filmmaking: Paul Strand, Robert Frank, William Klein, Gordon Parks, Elliott Erwitt. At least one famous photographer won a best cinematography Oscar: Karl Struss, for “Sunrise” (1927).
It makes sense that “All the Beauty” should have multiple predecessors as a documentary about a celebrated photographer. Here, listed alphabetically, are a baker’s dozen.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2017) Errol Morris’s film is a love letter to Dorfman, who died in 2020. This makes sense twice over. The two Cambridge residents were longtime friends; and as anyone who ever met Dorfman soon learned, she was highly lovable. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, HBO Max, YouTube
Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007) Here’s a rarity: a collector-and-photographer documentary. Wagstaff was Mapplethorpe’s lover and artistic mentor. James Crump’s dual portrait displays a rare degree of intelligence, sophistication, and frankness. Available on Amazon Prime
Finding Vivian Maier (2014) In 2007, more than 100,000 negatives of high artistic quality surfaced at an estate auction. Maier had taken them. She was a solitary eccentric who’d supported herself as a nanny. John Maloof, the discoverer, co-directed this documentary and has a lot of screen time. He’s almost as odd as Maier was. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV
Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (2018) Sasha Waters Freyer’s shrewdly appreciative documentary offers a comprehensive look at an artist who came as close to being a photographic force of nature as the medium has known. The filmmaking can be a bit shaky, but what a subject. Available on Amazon Prime
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (2020) The man whose large, louche female nudes became a brazen, chilly brand comes across in Gero von Boehm’s film as quite winning. He recalls his father telling him, “‘You’ll end up in the gutter, my boy.’ He was right; I did. But I had a good time in the gutter.” Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye (2005) Heinz Bütler’s film is dismayingly slight. But two glorious sequences more than compensate: Cartier-Bresson absorbed in conversation with a younger colleague, Josef Koudelka, and visiting the Louvre, where he gazes, rapt, at Vermeer’s “Lacemaker.” Available on Amazon Prime
In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter (2013) A pioneering color photographer, Leiter was, in his shrugged-shoulders way, as lovable as Elsa Dorfman. “Why do people want more, more, more?,” he asks in Tomas Leach’s film. “I’m tired. I want to be left alone. I embrace my own unimportance.” Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Kanopy
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith (2015) The great photojournalist loved jazz so much that he basically turned his apartment into a round-the-clock jam session from 1957-65. Sara Fishko’s film chronicles this rare alliance between creativity for the eye and for the ear. Available on Amazon Prime
Manufactured Landscapes (2007) As seen in Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, Edward Burtynsky’s views of the man-altered landscape in China — from immense assembly lines to the Three Gorges Dam — are at once spectacular and unnerving. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Kanopy
The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover (2006) O. Winston Link was obsessed with photographing the last steam locomotives, and that obsession inspired some extraordinary images. As its title suggests, Paul Yule’s film focuses more on the train wreck that was Link’s second marriage. Available on Amazon Prime
The Salt of the Earth (2015) This Oscar-nominated film about Sebastião Salgado was directed by Wim Wenders and the famed Brazilian photographer’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. It’s often visually stunning and emotionally powerful, though it would benefit from a less reverential view of its subject and his work. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
William Eggleston in the Real World (2005) Michael Almereyda’s unhurried documentary presents an up-close and impersonal view of one of America’s greatest living photographers. The impersonality is appropriate, though: It matches the detachment of both the film’s subject and his images, which Almereyda acutely describes as “miracles of casual seeing.” Available on Amazon Prime, Kanopy.
The Woodmans (2010) Francesca Woodman was only 22 when she killed herself, in 1981. C. Scott Willis’s dispassionately involving documentary lets us hear her parents, themselves noted artists, her brother, and various friends. More important, it shows us photographs and videos and excerpts from Woodman’s journals. Available on Amazon Prime, Kanopy
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.