AJFF What to Watch: Films About Photography

11/17/2020

If a picture is worth a thousand words then what is a film about photography worth? These documentaries bring the art of photos and their subjects into stark focus with new meaning. All are films that have formerly been featured at AJFF's annual festival. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

Carvalho's Journey
Saddle up for a true adventure of the Western Frontier in this unprecedented 19th century expedition of a Jewish-American pathfinder and artist. The son of a Sephardic family of Portuguese descent, portrait artist and photographer Solomon Nunes Carvalho never imagined himself an explorer. When expeditioner John Frémont set out through the Rockies to find a transcontinental railroad route, he recruited Carvalho to document the trek using daguerreotyping, an early form of of photography that captured images on a silver-coated plate. Despite his inexperience with such grueling conditions, Carvalho covered 2,400 miles of treacherous terrain to become the first professional photographer to capture the panoramas of the American West. Daily journal entries (voiced by Golden Globe nominee Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man) provide a dramatic first-person account of Carvalho's near-death experiences, as well as encounters with Native Americans and Mormon leader Brigham Young. Throughout, Carvalho demonstrates devotion to his family and Jewish faith, even as he is a stranger in an unknown land. Engrossing scholarly interviews and stunning Western landscapes bring to life this little-known Jewish pioneer who was instrumental in America's expansion. Featured at the 2016 AJFF.

Henri Dauman: Looking Up
Focusing a lens on one of the 20th century's preeminent photojournalists, this documentary celebrates the seminal work and inspiring story of the artist behind some of the world's most iconic images. Hardly a household name, Henri Dauman created a slideshow of American history, popular culture and high society, seen by millions of readers of Life magazine and other publications. Seeking to capture not just the likeness but the essence of his subjects, Dauman immortalized celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, and Elvis Presley. His work extends to pivotal world events, portraits of ordinary people and, notably, stunning New York City photos that launched his 40-year career after immigrating to America. Stepping out from behind the camera for the first time, the self-taught perfectionist remains every bit the engaging storyteller, relaying his childhood trauma in wartime France and love of movies, which inform the life-affirming vibrancy of his work. Featured at the 2019 AJFF.

Jay Myself
After a half-century amassing random objects in his landmark Lower Manhattan mansion, a venerated photographer prepares to say goodbye to his Bowery nest. Jay Maisel’s iconic work includes magazine and album covers, commercial advertising, and street photography. He is also a compulsive collector, stuffing every corner of “The Bank”—his 6-story, 36,000-square-foot, 72-room dwelling—with strange and beautiful miscellany. But now it must be emptied, following NYC’s largest ever private real estate deal. As a melancholy Maisel grapples with the arduous move, he waxes philosophical with protégé-filmmaker Stephen Wilkes, resulting in an affectionate ode to an artist’s remarkable life, the attrition of age, and the end of an era. Featured at the 2020 AJFF.

The Last Resort
A once-thriving Jewish beachfront paradise is rediscovered through priceless, captivating photos, in this wistful portrait of a Miami Beach of a bygone era. During the 1960s and '70s, this mecca of sun, low cost of living and thriving cultural life, was a veritable shtetl for Jewish retirees and Holocaust survivors escaping harsh Northeast winters. Friends Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe spent ten years photographing this bustling population of senior snowbirds at play. Using entirely different styles—Monroe favoring stark black-and-white over Sweet's candid candy-colored images—these talented shutterbugs captured with sensitivity and insight the Miami Beach of yesteryear. In a tonal shift reflecting the turbulent '80s, the project's happy origins give way to the sordid realities of rising rents and violent crime. This vibrant and informative peek through the camera lens is a visually superb record of a short-lived but long remembered chapter in Miami Beach history. Featured at the 2019 AJFF.

Picture of His Life
A daring Israeli underwater photographer prepares for his greatest challenge yet, in this extraordinary true-life adventure. Starting as a war photographer, Amos Nachoum built a 40-year career capturing stunningly gorgeous close-up photos of aquatic wildlife, from great white sharks, to killer whales and crocodiles. But one fearsome predator remains elusive. Setting out across the Arctic to fulfill his dream, Amos embarks on a perilous quest to swim alongside a polar bear and become the first to capture the encounter on film. His journey brings him face-to-face with painful memories that have shaped his fearless determination. This breathtaking, intimate portrait reveals a passionate artist and environmental activist who risks life and limb in pursuit of singular beauty. Featured at the 2020 AJFF.