10 Films for Photography Enthusiasts

Photography and cinema are kindred visual languages. For photographers looking for inspiration, here are 10 films to watch.

Feb 19, 2024By Lk Rigor, MA Art Studies (Curatorial Studies)
films photography enthusiasts

 

Movies can be a fertile ground of inspiration for photographers looking to improve and find meaning in their craft. Since cameras are used in photography and cinema, they share technical aspects in image-making such as lighting, composition, exposure, and post-processing. As visual tools used to portray reality, fiction, or a mix of both, photos and films are also used to reflect on concepts surrounding history, memory, identity, humanity, and more. In this list, various filmmakers from Europe, Asia, and the United States offer visual inspiration and introspective views on the art of making pictures.

 

1. For Contemplating Memories Through Photography: Sans Soleil 

chris marker sans soleil
Still from Sans Soleil, directed by Chris Marker, 1983. Source: IMDb

 

Chris Marker’s 1983  experimental docu-film Sans Soleil is an audiovisual diary of an unnamed narrator who has traveled to Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, San Francisco, and Cape Verde. As the vignettes of these locations unfold, the narrator ponders on memory and history in a poetic and personal manner. Most people take photos to capture memories for posterity or, in the words of Roland Barthes, to capture that-has-been. From the memorable to the mundane, a moment can be immortalized by a camera. Those who enjoy documenting their travels will get inspiration from how the film captured the locations and its locals and how individual experiences connect to the larger history.

 

2. Capturing Cityscapes: News From Home 

photography chantal ackerman news from home
Still from News From Home, directed by Chantal Ackerman, 1977. Source: IMDb

 

Solitude permeates Chantal Ackerman’s 1977 documentary film as she reads her mother’s letters against the backdrop of New York City. Her mother’s correspondences are almost consistent, at times reaching a point of overwhelming concern.

 

Through long takes, timing, and color grading, Ackerman paints the city with a more somber patina. New York’s intrinsically frenetic energy still peeks through, but in Ackerman’s eyes, the city feels slightly different and more personal.

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Photographers will appreciate how a place can be depicted as a character and a metaphor for a relationship. The long takes are also delightful to watch; they allow time to observe minute changes in the urban geography. See how everything slowly breathes in this film: the pacing, the city, the words, the loneliness.

 

3. Defining Beauty: Claire’s Camera

hong sang soo claires camera
Still from Claire’s Camera, directed by Hong Sang-soo, 2017. Source: IMDb

 

The camera in the title is an easy appeal to photographers who will learn so much from Hong Sang-soo’s 2017 film. In this story, the titular Claire and her metal blue polaroid unspool a web of relationships between the three South Koreans (Man-hee, Director So, and Yang-hye) she met during her sojourn at Cannes. Her photos are used not only as a conversation topic but also as a supplemental language that connects the non-native English main characters.

 

Aside from taking pictures, Claire’s Camera has an underlying theme of recognizing beauty. From offhanded comments to in-depth discussions, characters often express how beautiful something is; for instance, the sleeping dog on the pavement, a quote from a book, Man-hee’s singing voice, Yang-hye in her youth, cut pieces of pink clothing, and more.

 

4. On Experimenting: Emak-Bakia 

photography man ray emak bakia
Still from Emak-Bakia, directed by Man Ray, 1926. Source: Mubi

 

Man Ray’s 1926 cinépoéme (cinematic poetry) experiments with visual storytelling in many ways. Images made in the artist’s photographic style like Rayographs and double exposure, complement the film’s dream-like narrative structure. Rayograph was Man Ray’s word for photogram, an image developed without a camera, by using photosensitive material and light. In Emak Bakia: Reconsidered, Edward A. Aiken posits that the film reflects the artist’s “private view of photography, the cinema, and painting.” Furthermore, he writes:

 

Man Ray also probes the relationship between abstraction and realism through his manipulation of light, motion, and focus. In addition, he poses the questions of how chance relates to calculation and how words and images relate to meaning in poetry and art.

 

5. Revisiting Old Photographs: A Month of Single Frames

lynne sachs a month of single frames
Still from A Month of Single Frames, directed by Lynne Sachs, 2019. Source: IMDb

 

Eight years after a one-month residency in an off-grid shack, Barbara Hammer received her cancer diagnosis. A decade after the news, she started to look back at her personal archive as part of her art of dying. That year, in 2018, she entrusted the outputs from her residency to her filmmaker friend Lynne Sachs. A year later, the short film was released, and Hammer finally embraced eternal rest. As Hammer narrated her meditations about life, idyllic shots unfurled in this peaceful farewell: deep purple skies during sunset, long blades of grass dancing with the wind, and gentle rainfall outside the cabin window. This bittersweet tribute is a reminder that there are things that can only be discovered and realized in hindsight.

 

6. Visualizing the World and Humanity: Koyaanisqatsi 

godfrey reggio koyaanisqatsi
Still from Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, 1982. Source: TCM

 

Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental docu-film is an audiovisual feast. The grandiosity of the natural and man-made world is paraded through breathtaking shots accompanied by Philip Glass’s electrifying score. Man’s relationship to the environment is inferred based on how the images are sequenced and how the music builds the mood. Even without dialogue, the narrative is multilayered. Photographers of various sorts will surely take delight in the film’s visuals. Beyond the aesthetics, viewers will also gain insight into humanity.

 

7. Understanding Walter Benjamin’s Essay: Certified Copy 

abbas kiarostami certified copy
Still from Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 2010. Source: IMDb

 

Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 film is all about the copy and the original; hence, an intriguing watch that can be read against Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. At the time of his writing, photography had gained its footing in mass media. As such, critics like Benjamin have pondered its implications for culture and the arts.

 

In Certified Copy, British author James Miller and an unnamed French antique dealer converse about different facets of authenticity. The question of what is real is also reflected in the relationship between the two characters that undergo a confounding transformation throughout the film. Consuming texts from scholars like Benjamin and watching related films can deepen one’s photographic practice.

 

8. Trusting the Process: Mysterious Object at Noon 

apichatpong weerasethakul mysterious object at noon
Still from Mysterious Object at Noon, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000. Source: IMDb

 

This is a cinematic equivalent of the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse as the narrative develops through the imagination of the people encountered by the filmmaker around Thailand. Metaphysical matters, lingering shots, lush tropical environments—these signatures are already apparent in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2000 debut feature film.

 

Succeeding films by Joe (as he’s called by fans and family) have since been featured in international film festivals in places like Cannes and Venice. His other visual works— video installation, and photography—have also been exhibited in international museums and galleries. Crudeness is expected as one begins to explore and experiment with one’s style. The important thing is to continue practicing and this film could help you do that.

 

9. Rethinking Your Purpose: The Spectre of Hope 

paul carlin sebastiao salgado the spectre of hope
Still in The Spectre of Hope, directed by Paul Carlin, 2000, Source: NZIFF.

 

This 2002 documentary by Paul Carlin stages the discourse between photographer Sebastião Salgado and art critic John Berger as they reflect on the effect of globalization on mass displacement. Aware of his privilege and responsibility as a documentarian, Salgado hopes to portray humanity through his images. They also contemplate the idea of hope, which Berger defines as something that is not related to optimism but rather something that occurs in very dark moments… like a flame in the darkness. Beyond documentary photographers and photojournalists, photographers in other disciplines can expand their perspectives on society at large, prompting further reflection on one’s purpose in pursuing their practice.

 

10. Digging Through Photography Archives: To Pick a Flower 

photography shireen seno to pick a flower
Still from To Pick a Flower, directed by Shireen Seno, 2021. Source: Media City Film Festival

 

In her 2021 video essay, Shireen Seno presents archival photographs of a town established by an American industrialist in the Philippines during their colonial rule. With a mix of research and inference, she analyzes the power relations between man and nature. She also observes the difference between the colonizer and the colonized vis-à-vis their demeanor towards nature. Outside their usual users, the archives are underutilized resources, rich with unexplored narratives. Digging seeds from the past can enrich one’s understanding of the present.

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By Lk RigorMA Art Studies (Curatorial Studies)Lk had a 180-degree career shift in 2021 from IT to the arts. After spending more than half a decade in tech, she is now pursuing her passion for art and writing. She is currently juggling her postgraduate studies, research assistant duties, and freelance writing. Her research interests lie in photography, archives, contemporary art, and film.