Most of the research I have carried on street photography starts with a very simple view on the subject in that it’s traditionally shot in black and white. It all seems to start with Henri Cartier-bresson, famous for his identification of ‘the decisive moment’ and above all a street photographer.
Fig 1. A man jumps form a wooden ladder (1932) Fig 2. Man cycling down street (1932)
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, not always by choice, and this became a tradition amongst fellow street photographers.
Is Black and white the best format for street photography or is colour now acceptable?
When colour photography became widely available it was initially linked to snapshots and mass produced. When colour became an acceptable art form it also became a new medium for street photographers, pioneered by contemporary street photographers such as, Martin Parr (known as a documentary photographer) and Joel Meyerowitz who I talked about in a previous post for his photographs of 9/11.
Martin Parr’s work I had the pleasure of seeing in an exhibition, opposite my house, last year. The exhibition was about ‘Landscapes with machines’ but Parrs contribution was from his ‘Black Country Stories’ project.
Fig 2. Untitled (2010)
Ok, so this isn’t strictly street photography but what strikes me is Parr’s bold use of colour. In an otherwise bleak setting Parr has found vibrancy and this is a good use of colour in documentary, reportage or street photography. It adds to the story. If this photograph were in black and white it would portray a very different story and in the context of the black country certain connotations can be applied.
Looking at Parr’s street photography specifically and applying his use of colour we start to see a very different style emerging.
These images were taken during Whitby Goth weekend:
Fig 4 & 5. Untitled (2014)
I chose these images specifically in favour of using colour in street photography because they represent an ‘appropriate’ use of colour. Black is the main colour associated with Goths so it might seem fitting for the photographs to be in black and white but lets imagine they are. How well do you think the blackness of the goth (fig.5) would stand out against the other people? An identical black and white image would make the goth simply blend in. The point here is to make the goth stand out and to do that Parr needed to show the contrast between the black goth and the surrounding colour. It’s the colour that tells this story. In Fig.4 notice the ghostly ship in the background which is perfectly fitting for the subject and a great viewpoint chosen to capture this. Would the ship be more or less noticeable in black and white?
I think the point is that theres no right or wrong when considering the use of colour in street photography, it all depends on the context. In the example of the goths, colour is needed to highlight their lack of colour and therefore an appropriate use to maximise the story.
Black and white works well when theres a lot of contrast in light and shade as it accentuates the details and in this case a good use.
Rui Palha, a Portuguese street photographer and one of my inspirations, shoots exclusively in black and white. You can view his online gallery here Rui Palha . Black and white works well when theres a lot of contrast in light and shade as it accentuates the details. Rui Palha is particularly good at seeing this contrast almost as if he sees in black and white himself.
Moving away from surrealism
The street photography we know today is a far cry from Cartier-Bresson’s surrealist ideas. We seem far more concerned with telling the truth through or work today. This honesty further champions the use of colour in street photography, making it more real.
The use of irony
I keep coming across certain images throughout my research and one photograph that sticks in my mind is by Robert Frank from his collection, The Americans.
Fig 6. Parade Hoboken, New Jersey, (1955)
The irony in this photograph is the American flag is on display, proudly flying in the wind with people watching from their homes. However, one person is having their view blocked by the very symbol of their pride. Frank had a knack for spotting these opportunities and it reoccurs many times in his work.
Martin Parr, who I’ve been referencing throughout this post has a very good eye for British irony. In Fig. 7, we have a photograph of what is the quintessential British holiday.
Fig 7. From The last resort (1983-85)
The sun is shining and people are relaxing in the least relaxing environment. Theres a baby crying and litter everywhere and mum doesn’t seem too bothered. I find a lot of irony in this photograph alone as the British, stereotypically, don’t know how to relax.
Fig 1. Cartier-Bresson, H. (1932) A man jumps from a wooden ladder. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/henri-cartier-bresson/ (Accessed 09/02/2017)
Fig 2. Cartier-Breson, H. (1932) A man cycling down street. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/society/henri-cartier-bresson-the-world-of-henri-cartier-bresson/ (Accessed 09/02/2017)
Fig 3. Parr, M. (2010) Untitled At: http://www.martinparr.com/2010/black-country-stories/ (Accessed 09/02/2017)
Fig 4 & 5. Parr,M. (2014) Untitled At: http://www.martinparr.com/2014/whitby-goth-weekend/ (Accessed 09/02/2017)
Fig 6. Frank, R (1955) Parade Hoboken, New Jersey. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/robert-frank-the-americans#slideshow (Accessed 09/02/2017)
Fig 7. Parr, M (1983-85) The Last Resort At: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYDYDHEB9 (Accessed 09/02/2017)