Born in the 20s in Evanston, Illinois, Pennebaker was a World War II vet who got his initial start as an engineer. (An aptitude that presumably helped when he was working out the logistics of the then-nascent world of handheld filmmaking.) He shifted into making movies in the 1950s, beginning with short films and political docs—the latter of which would be a recurring obsession in his life, most notably in the form of his celebrated Clinton-era behind-the-scenes campaign doc The War Room. (“I could see right away that you couldn’t actually occupy space with a person who intended to become president in a very interesting way,” he told us in an interview about the 1993 film.They were constrained to act; as soon as the camera appeared, they had to pretend to be something else. That was never very entertaining. But with somebody like [James] Carville or [George] Stephanopoulos, they didn’t give a shit, you know? They didn’t see us as the press because we weren’t the 6 o’clock News.”)
After these early experiments (and a stint with Time-Life Broadcasting) Pennebaker began his true rise to prominence in 1967, when Albert Grossman hired him to follow Bob Dylan around Europe, footage that would eventually become the legendary Don’t Look Back. (There’s a mild irony to the fact that Pennebaker, so known for his observational, un-mannered style, would also help lay the groundwork for the modern music video with the film’s iconic opening scene.) Grossman had encountered Pennebaker’s work through a short film he’d made the year before about jazz singing Dave Lambert, edited for and shown at his memorial after his abrupt death in a car accident in 1966. In that same interview, Pennebaker (who’d been out of work, constantly making movies he had no place to show for the proceeding year) described the impetus for the Lambert film like this: “So I said in my head that maybe my reason for existing was to make films of people that nobody else was going to make films of, because I like the music or I like them, or whatever.” 

From there, Pennebaker became one of the go-to musical chroniclers of the 1960s, filming many of the biggest bands of the era at events like the Monterey Pop Festival (immortalized in his Monterey Pop), and later working with some of the most influential musical acts in the world, period. At the same time, he continued to expand his boundaries, working with French New Wave luminary Jean-Luc Godard, and importing and distributing foreign films for the American market. He would continue, along with his spouse, Chris Hegedus, to explore new music and new topics well into his 80s, filming shows for The National for YouTube as recently as 2010, and even dipping into the world of culinary film tourism with 2012's Kings Of Pastry.

(Fans of the more comedic side of the documentary world might know Pennebaker’s work from a different angle, meanwhile; two of his films, The War Room and Company: Original Cast Album, have been direct inspirations for episodes of IFC’s Documentary Now!, which also namechecks Dont Look Back in its opening credits. Pennebaker appeared earlier this year at a screening of Company hosted by IFC, in association with the related episode.)

Throughout his career, Pennebaker stumped for—and proved, relentlessly, through his work—that there was value in simple observation, shorn of outside narratives or artifice. Whether filming massive concerts or moments of quiet, thoughtful reflection, his movies championed a basic idea: That people are interesting, and watching them in their natural habitats is a worthwhile act. He helped establish much of the language of modern documentary filming—introducing generations to some of the best music surrounding them in the process—and the world of 20th century film would have looked very different without his steady, non-judgmental influence helping to guide it. Or, in his own words:

What was interesting was that the photographs came without any intention of instructing you. You just saw them. Of course, they always had to have underneath them what they were about, but you could almost not even bother with that. They were just such amazing pictures. I think from the very beginning, I felt it wasn’t our business with this incredible device, which cannot lie. If you point it at something, it’s what you see. We would just watch. We wouldn’t instruct, we wouldn’t confirm, we wouldn’t say anything, we would just watch what was happening in front of us, and if we could get into places where that was interesting, that would be the movie. That’s pretty much the way we do it now. That hasn’t changed much.