Alec Soth's Archived Blog

October 9, 2006

Photographers as filmmakers

Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 2:08 am


In college I was drawn to experimental filmmaking. I studied Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton. I made my own videos and super-8 films. But after awhile I saw this work as ponderous and pretentious. I rejected experimental filmmaking. I came to believe that the power of film was in conventional storytelling.

After I settled on photography as my medium I developed a notion that photographers make poor filmmakers. In retrospect I don’t think I have much evidence for this claim. I’ve seen very few films by photographers. I suspect photographers are no better or worse at filmmaking than anyone else.

I’ve been trying to come up with a list of photographers that have made notable films or videos. I’d like to get help adding to this list. I’d also like to read opinions on these photographers as filmmakers:

  • Larry Clark: Kids, Another Day in Paradise, Bully, Ken Park, Wassup Rockers
  • William Eggleston: Stranded in Canton
  • Robert Frank: Pull My Daisy, Candy Mountain, Cocksucker Blues, Keep Busy, Conversations in Vermont, Home Improvements, Life Dances On, Sanyu
  • David Lachappelle: Rize
  • Lauren Greenfield: Thin
  • Nan Goldin: Chasing a Ghost, Sisters, Saints and Sibyls
  • William Klein: broadway by light, who are you polly maggoo?, mr. freedom, muhammad ali the greatest, the little richard story, the messiah
  • Danny Lyon: Two Fathers, Five Days, Murderers, Soc. Sci 127, Little Boy, El Otro Lado, Dear Mark, Llanito, Los Ninos Abandonados, El Mojado, Willie, Born to Film, Media Man
  • László Moholy-Nagy: Berliner Stilleben, Ein Lightspiel: Schwarz-Weiss-Grau
  • Mary Ellen Mark: Streetwise
  • Joel Meyerowitz: Pop
  • Gordon Parks: Flavio, Diary of a Harlem Family, The World of Piri Thomas, Learning Tree, Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, The Super Cops, Leadbelly, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey
  • Man Ray: Man Ray: Les Mystères du château de Dé, Emak Bakia, Le Retour à la raison, L’Étoile de mer
  • Paul Strand: Manhatta, Redes, Native Land


  1. I don’t know if you’re looking for documentary films too but French photographer Raymond Depardon has made some great ones including “faits divers”, “délits flagrants” or “urgences”…

    Comment by roland — October 9, 2006 @ 3:16 am

  2. Gordon Parks – Shaft, Lead Belly
    Chris Marker – La Jette
    Wim Wenders – Paris Texas, Wings of Desire (director first, but he always says his first love is photography)
    Man Ray – many experimental films which were a big influence on Maya Deren, Ken Anger, etc…
    Nikki Lee – Nikki S. Lee
    Andrew Moore -How to Draw a Bunny
    I think Rodchenko dabbled in film…
    Does Andy Warhol count?

    Comment by raul — October 9, 2006 @ 4:46 am

  3. Hi Alec,

    How about John Cohen? He’s a renaissance man, it seems.

    I’d like to see any of them (as well as hear them…)


    Comment by Paul McEvoy — October 9, 2006 @ 5:42 am

  4. I believe Cartier-Bresson directed several documentaries as well as assisting Jean Renoir on a couple of films. I haven’t seen any of them though.

    Comment by Gustaf — October 9, 2006 @ 6:41 am

  5. There’s a list of films by Cartier-Bresson on Wikipedia.

    Comment by Gustaf — October 9, 2006 @ 6:44 am

  6. Robert Frank: Me & My Brother

    Peter Fischli & David Weiss: The Way Things Go

    Comment by JOhn — October 9, 2006 @ 7:20 am

  7. The Little Fugitive by the street photographers Morries Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley might be the most influential of all The French like Goddard and Trufault loved it Many critics site it is probably the most director stylistic precursor to Goddard and others New Wave flics
    Engel was a master of the hidden camera and I think one of the more underated photographers that I know of They basically shot half the move in Coney Island without most people knowing that they were doing it

    Comment by Bill Sullivan — October 9, 2006 @ 7:37 am

  8. Mary Ellen Mark is also credited as a writer on the beautiful Jeff Bridges film American Heart. Is that only because the story was derived from Streetwise, do you think? Otherwise it would be an intersting crossover — to take what she’d learned as a photographer, turn it into a documentary, and then turn that into a fictional film narrative.

    Comment by lara — October 9, 2006 @ 8:41 am

  9. There’s also a couple that are/were much more well known for their films, like Stanley Kubrick and Spike Jonze, who started out as photographers.

    Where as your list is mostly the great-photographers-who-also-made-films, I do think there are many great-filmmakers-who-were-once-photographers, but made a name for themselves as directors.

    Comment by Peter Baker — October 9, 2006 @ 9:49 am

  10. Kubrick was a photographer first. He was a staff photographer at LOOK before he got into film. It shows don’t you think?

    Comment by Dylan — October 9, 2006 @ 11:02 am

  11. Filmakers who are also photographers:

    Carlos Saura,Alain Resnais,Stanley Kubrik,Chris Marker,Rodchenko,Wim Wenders and I am sure there are others.

    Of course Robert Frank and William Klein are great at both forms.

    Comment by Andres Racz — October 9, 2006 @ 11:22 am

  12. Your collegue magnum member Raymond Depardon.

    Comment by jesus — October 9, 2006 @ 11:53 am

  13. this may not fall into the “notable” category, but cindy sherman, who, on a superficial level, might seem well-suited for film, put out the would-be mainstream indie “Office Killer” a while ago. It was a strange struggle between art and kitsch and trying to be in your face and clever with chicken innards and Molly Ringwald but it ended up being aggressively dull.

    i love this blog, btw.

    Comment by ll — October 9, 2006 @ 12:26 pm

  14. Ed Kashi and his wife Julie Winokur made a documentary movie called “Aging in America. The Years Ahead” while Ed was working on his long term story about aging. As far as I know that is the only movie they have published so far. Although they have been working on other documentaries as well.

    Comment by Martin Fuchs — October 9, 2006 @ 12:47 pm

  15. a great film maker/photographer: wim wenders

    Comment by bryan schutmaat — October 9, 2006 @ 1:02 pm

  16. Director as photographer: Leonard Nimoy

    Comment by Clint Weathers — October 9, 2006 @ 4:19 pm

  17. Tarkovsky was an avoid photographer. A book of his polaroids is out right now. He also shot with a Leica…

    Comment by blue — October 9, 2006 @ 4:52 pm

  18. I’ve seen Klein’s Muhammad Ali — The Greatest 1964-74 and recommend it highly. Better than When We Were Kings because it focuses first on Ali’s early days, and with amazing access — we can seen Ali perfecting his shtick, inventing himself on camera. There are two other memorable scenes: one, a sort of tableau vivant of Cassius Clay’s Louisville backers — a roomful of white liquor/cigarette/other barons, discussing their fighter. There’s also one long tracking shot done I think in a bus station but maybe an airport, where Klein or the camerman is backing up while interviewing an academic (I think). Goes on forever.

    Comment by Eric Etheridge — October 9, 2006 @ 5:44 pm

  19. Andy Warhol
    Abbas Kiarostami

    Easy to argue that they had/have other careers than just photographer.

    Comment by rusty — October 10, 2006 @ 12:19 am

  20. Last year I bought a book of Stanley Kubrick’s photographs, and although we (for obvious reasons) think of him as a filmmaker he was a photographer first, and not a bad one.

    Comment by Lucas Blalock — October 10, 2006 @ 11:10 am

  21. Steven Soderbergh has often said that one day he might dump film for photography. He often shoots his own movies. Most cinematographers turned directors like ernest dickerson and barry sonnenfeld are darned good photographers… I’ll bet if you look in the ranks of cinematographers you’ll find many former photographers as in most movies the director doesn’t actually touch the camera.

    Did you edit and add to your list? There seem to be a few more than when I checked in the other day… or perhaps I’m getting batty.

    Comment by blu — October 10, 2006 @ 2:42 pm

  22. […] In my post on photographers as filmmakers, numerous folks mentioned Wim Wenders. Someone else mentioned the importance of cinematographers. This got me to thinking about Wender’s cinematographer, Robby Müller. The two have worked together since 1969. Along with his outstanding work with Wenders, Müller has put unforgettable images for several great directors. I’m particularly fond of the images he has produced with Jim Jarmusch: […]

    Pingback by alec soth - blog » Blog Archive » Robby Müller — October 10, 2006 @ 11:31 pm

  23. Spike Jonze started as a photographer for skateboarding magazines (this work made a big impact on me). Stanley Kubrick shot for LOOK magazine also.

    Comment by jonmcgrath — October 11, 2006 @ 12:58 pm

  24. Please write 50 times ‘we must not forget Andy Warhol’.

    Warhol was the veritable dabbler it seemed. His movies were insightful of the time if nothing else- watching them akin to a flick through Vogue. His screenprints, however, were exquisite.

    Comment by Greg Clements — October 12, 2006 @ 9:09 am

  25. ooh, leni riefenstahl.

    Comment by aizan — October 12, 2006 @ 11:51 am

  26. Elliot Erwitt- Beauty Knows No Pain (documentary)- excellent.

    Comment by Stan Banos — October 12, 2006 @ 11:25 pm

  27. Well, Anton Korbijn, who did the majority of Depeche Mode vidoes (and the most famous photos of them as well).

    Comment by a_lauks — October 13, 2006 @ 1:40 pm

  28. […] In a post about photographers as filmmakers, photographer Alec Soth (Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara) wonders if his long-held “notion that photographers make poor filmmakers” is really true. But what caught my eye was his opening paragraph: In college I was drawn to experimental filmmaking. I studied Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton. I made my own videos and super-8 films. But after awhile I saw this work as ponderous and pretentious. I rejected experimental filmmaking. I came to believe that the power of film was in conventional storytelling. […]

    Pingback by hmmn » Blog Archive » Pondering pretension in experimental film — October 17, 2006 @ 10:11 am

  29. […] In my post about photographers who’ve made films, I neglected to mention Jerome Liebling. Liebling taught at the University of Minnesota for twenty years. During that time he made several award-winning documentaries with filmmaker Allen Downs (Pow Wow, The Tree Is Dead, and The Old Men). But his lasting impact in Minnesota seems to have been with photographers. […]

    Pingback by alec soth - blog » Blog Archive » Jerome Liebling — October 20, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

  30. I’ve think of Ellen von Unwerth, abbas kiarostami & dennis hopper.
    (this is endless…)

    Comment by edouard — October 23, 2006 @ 5:45 am

  31. Raymond Depardon, and his incredible movie on the Rwanda genocide

    Comment by Roel — October 23, 2006 @ 6:09 am

  32. This can be a long list.. but did anyone say..

    Cindy Sherman’s Feature Length Movie “Office Killer” staring Jean Tripplehorn

    Laurie Simmons – “The Music of Regret” staring Meryl Streep.

    And were do you think Shirin Neshat fits into all this? Photographer or Film Maker?

    Comment by Mike @ MAO — October 23, 2006 @ 1:10 pm

  33. in 2001 zana briski won the wpp 1st prize for a daily life story, documenting the red light district of calcutta. while working there, she started giving cameras to the local kids. they photographed their lifes and discussed the photos with zara. the whole process was filmed by her. the result is a touching film named ‘born into brothels’ (2004).

    Comment by martimr — October 24, 2006 @ 7:17 pm


    Comment by RUF — November 22, 2006 @ 2:56 pm

  35. Walter chappell made numerous 16mm films through the 1960’s and 70’s. I worked on two of these: Veteran’s Day and Alcatraz Ya Ta Hey! The later a 30 minute documentry on the Indain Occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 through 1971. Original music by Walter chappell’s son Piki Chappell.

    Comment by blaine ellis — November 30, 2006 @ 2:17 pm

  36. There’s a great many Music Video Directors who made their start as professional photographers such as: Anton Corbijn, Stephen Sednaoui, Floria Sigismondi, Dean Karr, David La Chappel, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Matthew Rolston. Even guys like David Fincher and Mark Romanek, who even though didn’t start out professionaly, are know to be very top notch photographers themselves.

    Comment by SK — December 31, 2006 @ 4:09 am

  37. For photog and film doppelgangers, add Lou Stoumen. Do you know his paper movies, like YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH SUNRISE? His documentary on the history of photography, THE NAKED EYE?

    Comment by Mike Hazard — January 4, 2007 @ 10:16 pm

  38. Photographer has a director is a key interest for me
    Other names
    Eric Valli: has directed Himalaya and honey hunters
    both films received many awards

    Eugene Richards: But the day came

    Bruce weber; let’s get lost, Broken Noses
    both films are shot on Black and whites

    Comment by Francois Dagenais — February 26, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  39. There is one of the best Portuguese Photographer – Daniel Blaufuks, that has made a film called “slightly smaller than indiana”. (

    Comment by André Cepeda — September 22, 2007 @ 11:32 pm

  40. Agnès Varda, she was a photographer before making her films. She created Ciné-Tamariz, where she produces hers films in Paris, Rue Daguerre.

    Comment by Madalena Lello — October 29, 2007 @ 10:15 am

  41. Ed van der Elsken, made a number of films

    * Handen (1960)
    * Dylaby (1962)
    * Lieverdjes (1963)
    * Welkom in het leven, lieve kleine (1963)
    * Fietsen (1965)
    * Hee poppelepee (1967)
    * Het Waterlooplein verdwijnt (1967)
    * De verliefde camera (1971)
    * Death in the Port Jackson Hotel (1972)
    * Avonturen op het land (1980)
    * Daan Doris (1981)
    * Een fotograaf filmt Amsterdam (1982)
    * Bye (1990)

    Comment by charbelito — May 27, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

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