Photography focuses on image, but it may ignore sometimes the essential brilliance of the ideas. Pop culture has always been a never ending source of inspiration for me. That’s why I want to present you ten documentaries to broaden your perceptions and schemes.
Learning about charismatic personalities with strong and ambitious views about life and art can be the best engine to get some motivation and inspiration. They can mean the final push you need to get you out and find muses or reasons to create. I’ve always understood photography as a communicative channel, so after reading this piece, ask yourself, what life story or idea do you want to tell with your cam?
Let’s start with the Queen of Pop and her Secret Project Revolution. Madonna back in 2013 made with Steven Klein a conceptual piece that may define everything that is happening in the world this 2020, dealing with issues such as freedom of artistic expression and human rights conveyed through a strong, beautiful, intricate and powerful performance. Quoting Jean-Luc Godard and even some Madonna’s speeches from her concerts the year before, it shows again that Madonna is the most undervalued icon in our history, at least, she is for this critic. The performative documentary treats global political and economic matters, violence and police brutality among other topics. The idea was clear with the dedication statement: “This film is dedicated to those who have been persecuted, are being persecuted, or may be persecuted. For the color of their skin. Their religious beliefs. Their artistic expression. Their gender. Or their sexual preferences. Anyone whose human rights have been violated.” For those of you with the prejudice that the last interesting stuff Madonna did was Ray of Light or even worse her 80’s music, please give her a chance, listen to her world music in Madame X that is her last album, watch all her last tour shows which are masterpieces or have a look at her intelligent political expression on Instagram. She is still up there.
We continue this journey with the poetic and shocking Shirkers (2018) by Singapore-born filmmaker Sandi Tan. Just imagine that when you are 19 years old you direct a film and you put all your heart on it, and then, your mentor or teacher disappears with the whole footage. The film is like your baby, and you are left empty, no explanation or clue. This is the premise of this documentary. I’ve always found a moving touch in the films that talk about creating using metalanguage, and Sandi Tan really makes you feel her connection to her art piece. I studied Philology at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife, and I had a teacher that made me fall in love with postmodern literature, she presented us the works of John Fowles, and Shirkers reminded me of Fowles in the same passion for the creative process.This monster investigation into her own film brings out tenderness, love and nostalgia, like Joel Barish, the character of the film Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, when he is struggling to revert his decision to forget Clementine, Sandi Tan tries to put the pieces together of the puzzle of her lost film in the most romantic tradition. The story can’t be more inspiring.
Two documentaries about transformation: I’m Divine (2013) and Glittering Misfits (2019) could be the spark for new shooting ideas. Many photographers from Nan Goldin to David LaChapelle have used this spark in their creations. I myself have done lots of work about transformation, from pageant contests to documenting the night life of drag queens. I’m Divine is documentary gold, capturing the essence of what happened between the genius John Waters and her muse Divine, and the spirit of their first cult trash films that evolved into more serious and ambitious intentions. The same evolution that Pedro Almodóvar has shown in his filmography, from the hilarious and crazy comedies to the deep tragicomedy dramas. In a society that fails to accept the importance of the masquerade, the drag and the fake to really understand our reality, the saddest part of this documentary is to feel that Divine didn’t want to be simply a drag, he also ambitioned to be an actor. At last, the drag was just one of his characters, he wanted to be many other characters. You will fall in love with Divine watching this! Glittering Misfits shows that underground culture is engaging, rich and most of all human. Iban del Campo, the director, succeeded in depicting the personalities of James ‘Tigger!’ Ferguson and Dirty Martini on and out of stage. Their views about pop culture go further than the New York scene, their lives become dreamy shelters in opposition to the American Dream. Not far from these pop subculture universes, I hate New York (2018) cleverly directed by Gustavo Sánchez also shows the glittering lives of four female underground artists during a decade, from 2007 to 2017. The film is so intimate that you will feel you are there with them, in the clubs, their rooms and even in their bathrooms, listening to them while they are doing their makeup and discussing what is the real stuff and what is fake, as the real metaphor of being authentic in life. The honesty of the protagonists and the rawness of Gustavo’s approach make the film work through the empathy it makes you feel.
The 70’s is the decade of disco and freedom, maybe due to the pre-aids easy life. Antonio López 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco (2017) and Studio 54 (2018) both bring back the spirit of these joyful and no worrying years with free spirit personalities enjoying image, looks, fashion, design, nightlife, drugs, sex, romance, love, music and dancing, and elevating them to the category of art. The documentary about Antonio has a frenetic rhythm, there is no pause probably because in his life there weren’t empty spaces, he was just full of life and passion. It’s sadly unfair that pop culture hasn’t kept him on the same fame and recognition level as Andy Warhol. His muses and creations will inspire you to get out and find your own muses. It’s especially remarkable the amount of ambitious and talented people he related to. Antonio should be studied and analysed compulsorily in history and art books. Studio 54 has had a much more relevant duration in the collective memory from what you would expect for its short period of time that it was opened. This documentary follows the two different owners during the existence of the club. Everyone seemed to be effortlessly glamorous at that time, if you don’t believe me, just watch it. There is a Michael Jackson short scene that I really enjoyed, I’m a Mike’s hardcore fan, and I’ve never seen Michael so relaxed and natural. The disco just proved the skill to desinhibit the most inhibited creatures.
About strong personalities: Manolita, la Chen de Arcos (2016), Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story (2017) and the most recent Mucho, mucho amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (2020) show again the complex and difficult lives of artists that had to fight against the society’s standards and the so-called normality to be loyal to themselves. Manolita tells her brave story from a child who wanted to play with dolls and sew to the successful business woman and artist she became with her talent and strength. It’s remarkable to hear her compassion to all the people that hurt her during her past, like if she could forgive everyone’s failures and all the damage they did to her. She is what we call in Spain a Señora. It has also some funny moments like the story about her name that would take her to court. The documentary about Kevyn Aucoin brings his lovable relation to the glamorous 90s top models and the biggest pop icons of the time, but unfortunately turns into the drama of his search for love, in his family and especially in his mother figure. His success finally tasted bitter because of this obsessive hunt to be loved, and also his physical condition. Kevin will always be remembered as one of the best makeup magicians, and also as the artist that could work for all his child heroines. To end this list, you have probably seen the image of Walter Mercado on your Instagram these days, a foreteller that became a loved celebrity able to make gold on every TV show. He broke all the gender and sexual orientation limits of his time, just being free. Walter Mercado created a whole industry around him, his positive and constructive way of talking and his extravagant clothes will also be part of our pop culture, forever. As an example, recently, in All Stars 5, in Rupaul Drag Race, during the Snatch Game of Love, which is one of the typical challenges of this drag competition, a controversial contestant called Alexis Mateo did a candid, lively and memorable impersonation of Walter Mercado, showing that his legend is alive, more than ever. Thanks Walter for being such a beautiful angel! And like you said: “mucho, mucho amor”.
Seigar is a passionate travel, street, social-documentary, conceptual, and pop visual artist based in Tenerife, Spain. He feels obsessed with the pop culture that he shows in his works. He has explored photography, video art, writing, and collage. He writes for some media. His main inspirations are traveling and people. His aim as an artist is to tell tales with his camera, creating a continuous storyline from his trips and encounters. He is a philologist and works as a secondary school teacher. He is a self-taught visual artist, though he has done a two years course in advanced photography and one in cinema and television. His most ambitious projects so far are his Plastic People and Tales of a City. He has participated in several international exhibitions, festivals, and cultural events. His works have been featured in numerous publications worldwide. His last interests are documenting identity and spreading the message of the Latin phrase: Carpe Diem. Recently, he received the Rafael Ramos García International Photography Award. He shares art and culture in his blog: Pop Sonality.