10 Great Filmmakers Who Once Were Photographers

Marshall McLuhan considered advertising the greatest art form of the 20th century- for the same reasons, cinema is also an art that perfectly combines other artistic areas.

The production of a film includes literature (script), architecture (scenery), painting (color), performing arts (acting), music (film score), comic strip (animation films and storyboarding) and mainly photography (image capture). Of course, filmmakers can be more influenced by some arts than others and those influences are crucial to developing any kind of identity as a director.

It is possible to observe this in many popular filmmakers. Guillermo del Toro was a special-effects make-up designer for 10 years and his films stand out in terms of special effects and makeup.

Jim Jarmusch is obsessed with literature and indeed his pictures look a lot like books, since Jarmusch embraces the concept of storytelling. Patrice Leconte was a comic strip writer and his characters have a certain cartoon style; bizarre and exaggerated. Steve McQueen was a visual artist and his works are very rich in terms of expression and communication.

Others are bonded with photography and that is also noticed on their films. In this list, we focus on good directors who were photographers first and then converted to filmmaking. Directors who first started in filming and then experienced photography were not eligible here, so names like David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky or David Fincher are excluded.

This article was based in qualitative items, so some of the directors that compose this list were not assiduous in producing works, but the quality was always there.


10. Anton Corbijn

As a photographer: This Dutchman had connected with music and photography since the age of 20. Corbijn was a huge fan of black-and-white and first became popular with it- some years later he felt the need to diversify his style using colors.

Throughout his career he remained very close to music; in fact, some of Anton Corbijn’s best known works include U2, Miles Davis, Metallica, Tom Waits and Joy Division. This bond between music and photography would be very handy later on his director debut.

As a director: Corbijn’s entrance in cinema was like an elephant in a china shop. His intentions weren’t to go unnoticed and “Control” was an amazing music biopic. The film’s cinematography is astonishing and the plot is very reliable.

However, his last three pictures weren’t nearly as good: “The American” was a poor attempt to achieve some popularity, starring George Clooney; “A Most Wanted Man” had also a good cast, but was too boring, arousing curiosity just because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death (this was his last film); “Life” was just uninspiring.


9. Man Ray

As a photographer: Man Ray was always an eclectic and complete artist, maybe because he studied visual arts, engineering, architecture and photography. In 1915 he met Marcel Duchamp with whom he explored the potential of Dadaism.

In France he also embraced surrealism. Credited as an artistic genius, Man Ray had in front of his lens names like Hemingway, James Joyce, Salvador Dalí, Coco Chanel or Jean Cocteau. He is one of the most important photographers of all time, mostly because of the struggle he did against rules, boundaries and dogmas.

As a director: In terms of cinema his importance isn’t even comparable with photography, but he did produce a solid bunch of good short films. His assets aren’t well known or recognized, but he captured the best he did in photo shooting and adapted it to the big screen.

A great example of his talent to film is “L’étoile de mer”, where he mixed dreams and the surreal in a style reminiscent of what David Lynch and Emir Kusturica would do later. Because his pieces are mostly conceptual, his films are more suitable for people who love art and artistic features.


8. Chris Marker

As a photographer: Chris Marker is a very distinguished case of a director who first was a photographer. The French artist had his first contact with photography in the early 50’s, starting a journalist career and shooting for work and for his personal pleasure. Curiously he has only one famous work produced in this phase.

Later, and after a rich and proficient filmmaking career, Chris Marker returned to photography. His subjects are very close to the routine and quick pace of the world.

As a director: Roy Armes called him “the only ist of French cinema” and it’s easy to understand why while watching pictures like “La jetée”, “Sans Soleil” or “A.K.”, a documentary about Kurosawa’s film techniques.

Bonded with documentary genre, Chris Marker directed tens of short films and was very interested in digital technology during his final years as a filmmaker. He passed away in 2012 and his death was mostly noticed by intellectuals and other artists.


7. Spike Jonze

As a photographer: Starting his photographic career in an international BMX club, Spike Jonze is considered today a talented and prolific director more than an interesting photographer.

His BMX and skateboarding pictures are very artistic and his concern about composition and inimitability was already present in his early years. During this time, he introduced a whole new game to extreme sports photography, coming with new angles, mixing black and white with color photos and turning all his works into something unique.

As a director: Fortunately, there’s a lot more to say about Spike Jonze as a director. The American introduced himself with “Being John Malkovich”, after working on several video clips with some important music artists, and recently proved all his capacities with “Her”, one of the greatest cinematic achievements in last years.

Other very interesting aspect is his diversity of works: he was responsible for dramatic and demanding films like “Adaptation”, “Her”, and “Where the Wild Things Are”, but he was also involved in “Jackass”, light advertising and other minor jobs.


6. Robert Frank

As a photographer: Born in Switzerland, Robert Frank was one of the most influential photographers of the 21st century and maybe the most curious case of a photographer-turned-filmmaker.

For some, Frank was like an Alexis de Tocqueville of modern times and his most famous work, “The Americans” is credited as the most important photographic work done until today and a great innovation in terms of human expression in photography. Robert Frank himself said that the most important thing in photography is humanity.

As a director: None of his films achieved the importance of “The Americans”. His filmography is a mystery and isn’t completely available, but there’s unquestionable quality in titles like “Cocksucker Blues” (about a tour of Rolling Stones), “True Story” (a mix of personal subjects and art) and some experimental works such as “C’est Vrai” and “Paper Route”, films where Robert Frank walks without narrative editions and lots of improvisation. Even so, “Pull My Daisy” remains his most known work and it will be always Robert Frank’s business card, since he stopped directing in 2005.