‘Photographer’ TV Series Celebrates Photographers More Than Photography

Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'

National Geographic’s new documentary series, Photographer, lives up to its name. The six, hour-long episodes focus less on beautiful photographs and more on their creation. The series is very much about the person behind the images: the photographer.

At first, this caught me a bit off guard despite the show’s name. I knew who many of the featured photographers were and was already familiar with their work, so I wanted to see that work and how it was made. The show offers plenty of the latter, and that’s where it demonstrates its appeal; the story of the people behind my favorite photographs matters most.

The Focus is Almost Entirely on the Artists Behind the Art

There aren’t any brilliant Paul Nicklen or Cristina Mittermeier nature images without the moments away from the camera that impacted them the most — the events in life that made them who they are as people and photographers. There wouldn’t be the same emotionally captivating Campbell Addy portraits without Addy’s culturally diverse upbringing. Dan Winters’ portraits wouldn’t be as powerful if not for who Winters is as a person and the way he approaches his craft.

Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Cristina Mittermeier swims along the surface of the water looking through her camera lens. | Credit: National Geographic
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Emperor Penguins propel themselves out of Antarctica’s icy waters, shot from the Mario Zuchelli Base, Ross Sea, Antarctica | Credit: Paul Nicklen
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Subadult Polar Bears do mock battle along the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay. | Credit: Paul Nicklen

For the featured photographers — Nicklen, Mittermeier, Addy, Winters, Muhammed Muheisen, Anand Varma, and Krystle Wright — their lives, from childhood to the present day, have an indelible effect on their work. While many people are often exposed to these photographers through individual photographs, viewed almost in a vacuum, everything outside the frame touches what is contained within it.

Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Dan Winters sitting at his desk with an old Rolleiflex camera. | Credit: National Geographic/David Fausto
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
President Barack Obama photographed at the White House in 2016 shortly before leaving office. | Credit: Dan Winters

These emotionally affecting stories are Photographer‘s greatest strength. Great visuals, an arresting score, and well-executed documentary-style cinematography punctuate the most powerful clips.

Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Campbell Addy filming behind the camera. | Credit: National Geographic
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Fadhi Mohamed for The Wall Street Journal Magazine, October 2020. | Credit: Campbell Addy

Despite the diverse range of genres each photographer specializes in, a through-line connects them all. Whether in a studio, science lab, the ocean, or a warzone, each professional is driven by a passion to create. As different as each person is and as varied as their workflow, there is a universal desire, or maybe even need, to create impactful photographs that can change the world.

‘ Photographer’ Could Benefit From More Actual Photography

However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Photographer is a television show, there is not nearly enough screen time for the still images the talented artists have dedicated their lives to making.

Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Photographer Krystle Wright takes stationary images of her lighting design on a Long Canyon cliff face. | Credit: National Geographic/Jayce Kolinski
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Photographer Krystle Wright installs her lighting design along the cracks of a rock face, in preparation for her shoot. | Credit: National Geographic/Pablo Durana
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Angela Vanwiemeersch on Seventh Serpent 5.11+, Reptilian Wall in Moab, Utah. | Credit: Krystle Wright

I appreciate that it could be jarring to the average television viewer to see a still frame on the screen. However, as a passionate photographer myself, there’s also something frustrating about the general lack of time the show gives to still photography. The featured photographers are especially compelling as documentary subjects because they all expertly craft compelling narratives into individual moments. I want these moments to have a leading role.

Yet a lot of the airtime in Photographer is video clips of the subjects that the photographers turn into still frames rather than the images themselves. When the images do appear, as beautiful as they are, they’re gone in a split second. I found myself pausing Photographer so I could properly appreciate the photography on display, and I shouldn’t have to pause a show to enjoy it.

So much of the attention is given to the makers of images and how they make photos that there’s not a lot of space left for what is actually being created.

Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Weeks spent with the refugee families builds trust and the kids start to attach themselves to Muhammed Muheisen. Five-year-old Nikolai (“Kola”) Demidov sits comfortably on Muhammed’s lap and gets an impromptu photo lesson. | Credit: National Geographic/Rita Baghdadi
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Jordan — Syrian Refugee Zahra has been photographed by Muhammed since he first met her at Jordanian refugee camp in 2015. Through the years, Muhammed visited her multiple times. | Credit: Muhammed Muheisen

Photographer does a fantastic job at showing the process behind the photos and how each of the showcased photographers works. The show respects the person behind the photo and how they create images, but I do wish it spent more time on the actual results. After all, the photographer at the heart of Photographer is a photographer because of their photos.

Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
Photographer Anand Varma | Credit: National Geographic
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
The forked tongue of this Anna’s hummingbird can be seen through the glass vessel from which it’s drinking artificial nectar. To keep the birds healthy in captivity, the artificial nectar they’re fed contains protein powder and other nutrients, seen here as white specks. | Credit: Anand Varma
Review of Nat Geo's new documentary series 'Photographer'
This Anna’s hummingbird shakes off rain as a wet dog does, with an oscillation of its head and body. According to researchers at UC Berkeley, each twist lasts four-hundredths of a second and subjects the bird’s head to 34 times the force of gravity. | Credit: Anand Varma

Should You Watch ‘Photographer’?

Yes. For photography enthusiasts, Photographer is worth checking out, even if it is imperfect. It honors the humanity inherent to photography, even if it doesn’t celebrate the resulting photographs as much as I’d like.

Photographer is a six-part documentary series airing now on Disney+, Hulu, and National Geographic. All episodes are streaming on Disney+ now and run for about an hour each. The first two episodes have aired on National Geographic, with the remaining four slated to air in pairs on March 25 and April 1.

Image and caption credits: National Geographic’s “The Photographer.”