mdm2_280My interest in making pictures spiraled out of a love for cinema, and in rewatching some film favourites this winter, I realised I’ve learned more about photography from watching film than I’ve been able to admit. What flows between photography and documentary cinema is both wide and narrow. While wondering about the distance between the two bluffs, I thought I’d pluck a few remarkable examples of incredible cinematography from documentary film that have (in some small way) showed me how (and why!) to make photographs with a still camera.

From Ulrich Seidel’s “Animal Love

Nearly every shot in Ulrich Seidel’s “Animal Love” resonates with popular themes, echoes (and familiar redundancies) of contemporary photography. Rather than just quoting compositions or photographers, Seidel is forging something new, an entirely fresh, intimate view. Steady and unshaking, Seidel’s camera is a kind of surveillance mirror. His subjects see their own reflection in its lens, and they clearly don’t mind the world is watching.

From Ulrich Seidel’s “Animal Love

How many portfolios have you seen with a still image that looks like the clip above? Are you as surprised as I am by how evocative this content is as a moving picture?

Photography will always be the nimble welterweight when compared to cinema’s brute strength (a left to your ear and a right to your eye) but when viewing a clip like the one above, I wonder about all the atmosphere that might be missing in a still photographic portrait, and I wonder how video portraits (like these, shot well before HD and the SLR-video boom) might be the lightning that makes the pixels of our screened-in world flicker a bit more brightly. All it takes now is a Canon 7D, right?

There are simple lessons I’ve learned from (docu)cinematography, too. Issues of focus, detail, and attention. Rewatching the Maysles‘ (each and any of their films astound) it’s shot-after-amazing-shot. I know there was quite a team of camera operators at Altamont that day, but check out this gem of focus, in which the main subject (Mick) inhabits the blurry foreground which brings a hairy guy’s trip into shocking clarity.

From the Maysles’ “Gimme Shelter

In this sequence and the one following, the Maysles show the power of staying-with-their-subject, and through the simple act of framing and changing focus, they create a complex narrative that becomes a metaphor for the demise of the 60s, at the exact moment the 60s is dissolving into chaos.

Below, dancing-man dances while fights break out (and Meredith Hunter is murdered), while hippie kids express displeasure (though still grooving and flirting with dancing-man’s tuneful charisma) as dancing-man keeps valiantly and vainly shimmying-in-the-face of the end of hippie idealism.

From the Maysles’ “Gimme Shelter

It’s hard to believe that the above is one-take, one-camera, real life as it happened. Dig it?

Earlier, Keith’s at Muscle Shoals, listening to the tapes of “Wild Horses“, where the detail of his well-worn snake-skin boots tapping along to the song is an essential detail that tells a bigger story about the band, their era, and the rock star ethos. It’s a moving still, essentially.

From the Maysles’ “Gimme Shelter

When you’re hired to make a film, you have the strength of contracts, relationships, or the bulkiness of equipment to lean-on when the going gets tough. Even with the lightweight gear the Maysles’ employed, there’s a profound touch in how they choose to linger on Charlie Watts here, following the shot through to its logical end. It’s a skilled fearlessness. It’s the knowing hand of someone who intuits there’s something better in the next half-second, and the half-second after that, and if they stay with the situation long enough, everything will resolve perfectly.

Additionally, the shot broaches “how long can you point a camera at someone who’s conscious of being filmed or photographed, and to what benefit is it to linger?” For the Maysles, lingering on Watts yields an unexpected gift; the listless drummer does a narcoleptic triple-take and turns just at the end of the song to cue the filmmakers to register Jagger’s reaction, which arrives perfectly on-target, ring(leader) and all.

From the Maysles’ “Gimme Shelter

Another great (early) example of following a story as it unfolds around you is the iconic view from Robert Drew’s “Primary”, where the cameraman follows Senator John F. Kennedy into a hall to give a speech. It was historically important because cameramen had never worked with portable gear that could be carried by a single operator. It’s also the first instance of the “follow-the-man-backstage” docu-cliche, which would become famous thanks to D.A. Pennebaker following Bob Dylan through the maze beneath Royal Albert Hall, which was then Spinal Tap-a-fied into the mainstream.

From Robert Drew’s “Primary”

I wanted to include a few quick looks at Errol Morris’ iconic “Gates of Heaven”, which has otherworldly portrait sequences in which the documentary’s protagonists talk to an off-camera Morris about the pet cemetery business. Revealingly, Morris explained that the locations of these interviews were set-dressed. It’s fascinating that early on, Morris, like Herzog (and later, Seidel) realised that the “truth” of their documentaries could be enhanced by a little directorial control. A bit of background, maybe a costume or two. Like still photographers, they knew that to sell the emotional core of their film, sometimes they needed to slide away from strict “play-it-as-it-lies” documentary practice.



There are Sothian and Sultanian treasures here and beyond. I’m not claiming these filmmakers influenced photography, but it’s clear that they’ve been wrestling with many of the same concerns as still photographers for the last 40 years.

More so than marveling at the technical proficiency (or occasional fictional leniency) of these documentarians, films like these made me believe in the power of photographing the unglossed world. At its best, documentary filmmaking reminds us that photographic storytelling needn’t be fictional, computer-generated, or 3D, even. The best shots, both cinematically, and photographically, are all around us, always. We just need to find a way to see them through.

Michael David Murphy