Greetings, you’re listening to the Liam Photography Podcast, I’m your host Liam Douglas and this is Episode 262. In today’s episode I want to talk about some great photo documentaries that are a great source for inspiration as well as educating you on photography.
The first one is a story from PetaPixel and is about a new film that is in theaters now called From Where They Stood. In this new film you get to see photos that were taken covertly during World War II by prisoners in concentration camps as they were being held
by the Nazis.
From Where They Stood – in theaters and digitally in September
A new documentary explores the secret and unauthorized photographs that concentration camp prisoners clandestinely took during the Second World War.
Rolls of film labeled; Dachau 1943 – 1944, reveals grim photos of mainly Jewish people, some dressed in stripe pajamas, while they were interned in Nazi concentration camps.
The trailer for From Where They Stood, shows how brave inmates would wrap the camera in newspaper and tuck it under their arm. The photographer would then stand near evil Nazi guards and shoot “with his body and not his eye.”
Taking these photos would have been extremely dangerous and the trailer alludes to one photographer being caught. “When he learned that the Gestapo was going to get him, he just had enough time to hide the film.”
These courageous photographers were risking their lives to document one of the greatest atrocities ever committed. “It was very much an act of resistance,” explains one of the experts on the trailer. “It’s unlike anything we could imagine or believe.”
The covert photographs, taken in Dachau, Buchenwald, Dora, Ravensbrück, and Auschwitz-Birkenau are at the core of the documentary. The film crew takes life-size transparent prints of the images to the original locations and reconstructs the angles of where and when the photographs were taken.
Directed by Christopher Cognet, the photography-based film has so far received favorable reviews, with the New York Times outlining some of the more horrific content within the documentary.
“But the clandestine pictures known as the Sonderkommando photographs carry the gravest weight of all,” writes Nicholas Rapold for the Times.
“These ghostly images depict nude women on the way to the gas chamber and, afterward, corpses left in the open air (both scenes overseen by the cremation prisoner workers known as the Sonderkommando).
“Shot from a significant distance, apparently through holes in the gas chambers, these figures are small and not greatly defined, but no less devastating.”
Sonderkommandos were work units made up of Jewish prisoners who, threatened with their own deaths, aided with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust.
Holocaust survivors are increasingly rare as time marches on and the war generation is now well into their 90s. Earlier this year, PetaPixel featured an exhibition that shows portraits of Holocaust survivors with their families.
The film is in theaters now and will come to digital in mid-September. For information on listings, visit the film’s website. Now I have not had a chance to watch this film yet as I generally wait till films are available in iTunes
and then jus buy them.
Finding Vivian Maier – iTunes and elsewhere
Finding Vivian Maier is a 2013 American documentary film about the photographer Vivian Maier, written, directed, and produced by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, and executive produced by Jeff Garlin.
Maier was a French-American woman who worked most of her life as a nanny and housekeeper to a multitude of Chicago families. She carried a camera everywhere she went, but Maier’s photographic legacy was largely unknown during her lifetime. She died in 2009.
The film documents how Maloof discovered her work and, after her death, uncovered her life through interviews with people who knew her. Maloof had purchased a box of photo negatives at a 2007 Chicago auction, then scanned the images and put them on the Internet. News articles began to come out about Maier and a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary was soon underway.
The film had its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on 9 September 2013. It was shown in cinemas, and was released on DVD in November 2014. Upon release, the film received critical acclaim, and won various awards, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards.
Finding Vivian Maier has an approval rating of 95% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 100 reviews, and an average rating of 7.50/10. The website’s critical consensus states, “Narratively gripping, visually striking, and ultimately thought-provoking, Finding Vivian Maier shines an overdue spotlight on its subject’s long-hidden brilliance”. It also has a score of 75 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 27 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.
I have personally watched this film and own it in iTunes and it is absolutely fantastic. Vivian was one very talented photographer and it’s sad that she kept most of her work to herself. She only printed a small number of her images, generally for herself only, though she did put a small number of them on display in her hometown in France.
I was incredibly surprised to find that one of the people she worked for over the years was TV talk show host Phil Donahue and that she was the type of person who kept to herself apart from her work. She was extremely shy and just wanted to do her thing and not be bothered by anyone.
Jay Myself – iTunes and elsewhere
Jay Myself is a 2018 American documentary film directed by Stephen Wilkes, produced by his wife, Bette Wilkes, and written by Josh Alexander. The film chronicles the days during which renowned photographer Jay Maisel decides to sell his long-time New York home, the historic six-story former Germania Bank Building on the Bowery, for $55 million dollars. The documentary tells the story of how Maisel obtained this property in 1967. The film starts with Maisel having only five months left until his building will be sold. During these months he is sorting through 72 rooms, showcasing a collection of VHS tapes, special-sized screws, and of course, the photographs for which he was famous.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 89% approval rating based on 18 reviews, with an average ranking of 7.7/10. On Metacritic, Jay Myself have a rank of 74 out of a 100 based on 8 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”. The production began with Wilkes, back then a photographer himself, getting acquainted with Maisel in 1979, and soon after becoming his close friend, assistant and mentee. The film was shot in 2015.
Jay Myself premiered at 2018 Doc NYC. It was screened at numerous other film festivals, including the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Newport Beach Film Festival and OTR Film Festival. It also was screened domestically at the 2019 Milwaukee and at the Sedona Film Festivals.
John DeFore of The Hollywood Reporter called Jay Myself “A fascinating look at an artist’s life”, while Glenn Kenny of The New York Times stated simply “It’s a fun journey”.
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman praised the narration, writing “Wilke[s] views his old mentor with affection, but with a supreme awareness of what a crazy-charismatic crank he can be”.
Nick Allen of RogerEbert.com had a different opinion. He wrote: “Whether this is all for the sake of art or not, it can be too nauseating to peer into from the outside”.
According to Derek Smith of Slant Magazine, “Jay Maisel’s former home suggests a bastion of creativity in a neighborhood whose rough edges have been completely sanded down”.
Leah Pickett of Chicago Reader wrote in her closing comments that “[i]n the end, the viewer might find herself both feeling the loss at the center of Maisel and Wilkes’s letting-go process and craving a similar grotto of her own”.
Again I own and have watched this film several times as I absolutely love the story and seeing how Jay lived and worked in this old bank that was both his massive studio and home. I feel that his protege Stephen Wilkes does an excellent job of telling Jay’s story and although Jay can be a cranky old man at times his talent with a camera is unmistakeable.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography – Netflix
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a 2016 American documentary film directed by Errol Morris. The film explores the life and career of Elsa Dorfman. The film was released on June 30, 2017, by Neon. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 4, 2016. The film was released on June 30, 2017, by Neon.
Following her retirement, Elsa Dorfman lovingly showcases her photographic works from her fifty-year career in photography while also telling personal and professional anecdotes and describing her artistic motivations. The film has a loose chronological narrative. Dorfman starts by showing her early black and white photographic work. She recalls moving to New York City to work for Grove Press, where she became acquainted with Beat writers, including Allen Ginsberg. She then describes moving back to Massachusetts to teach elementary school, at which point, the photographer assigned to work with her introduced her to photography. By the 1970s, she had photographed Andrew Wylie, Victor Bockris, Anais Nin, W. H. Auden, Andrea Dworkin, Ed Sanders, Gail Mazur, Audre Lorde, and Anne Sexton.
Dorfman then describes her excitement over the release of the 20×24 Large Format Polaroid in 1980, which is followed by footage of her using the 20×24 Polaroid she was eventually able to rent, one of only five. She goes on to show the first photo she took on the 20×24, a photo of Allen Ginsberg with an amaryllis. Dorfman goes through other photos she had taken on the 20×24 and recollects the memories associated with them. This includes her parents, husband, son, and Ginsberg. She reflects on the death of her parents and of Ginsberg, as well as more lighthearted memories of her past birthdays. She talks about Polaroid going out of business and how it affected her, overall conveying her artistic motivations and understanding of her photographic mediums.
This film was well-received overall, receiving a rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Glenn Kenny with the New York Times writes, “Part of Mr. Morris’s reputation as a great documentary filmmaker is derived from his friendly-seeming but pressing interview technique, but here, when he’s heard, he speaks to Ms. Dorfman as a friend, and she responds to him with warm reminiscences of her beginnings as a photographer…Ms. Dorfman emerges as an artist of deep compassion, empathy, humor and wisdom. During a montage of photographs of Ginsberg, he is heard in a late-’50s audio recording reading his great poem ‘America.’ Lines like ‘America when will you end the human war’ and ‘America why are your libraries full of tears’ resonate with a particular poignancy even today, as does ‘America when will you be angelic.’ ‘The B-Side’ is a portrait of a genuine American angel.”
Robert Abele with the Los Angeles Times writes, “This is the rare Morris movie that feels led by the personality of its star figure, in this case Dorfman’s wry positivity and love of what she does, rather than his need to probe. You can almost sense Morris smiling off-camera as she pulls each exposure from her file drawers for reminiscing and newfound scrutiny — that’s how strong and warm his admiration is for Dorfman and the humble richness of her work.”
Again, this is a film I have watched several times as I love the story and I love seeing Elsa’s work using this massive Polaroid camera system. I am a bit surprised being it was as expensive as it was at the time and according to Elsa how expensive it was to even rent that she was able to work something out with Polaroid to keep the camera long-term in her studio to shoot most of her 50 years in photography with this one camera and the prints she got from this camera are truly amazing!
Tales By Light – Netflix
Tales by Light is an Australian documentary reality television series airing on National Geographic. The program is branded content and a joint venture between National Geographic and Canon which follows a number of professional photographers travelling around the world to capture images which tell a story.
The program debuted on 24 May 2015 and was renewed for a second season which debuted on 25 October 2016. A third season premiered on Network Ten on 26 August 2018. You can find the list of episodes on Wikipedia
From the official Canon Australia website for the series, “Tales by Light Season 3 takes viewers behind the lens and into the minds of three new photographers, each motivated to harness the power of images to draw attention to and inspire the world to protect some of the most beautiful and vulnerable aspects of our world: children, the ocean, and Australian Indigenous culture.”
I highly recommend this series for anyone into photography. It is wonderful to follow the journey of these highly talented photographers as they go out to other countries to capture some of the most powerful and compelling photo stories I have ever seen. If you don’t come away from this series and these films without a renewed sense of creativity and passion for photography, then you might want to give it up all together!
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