Black and White in Street Photography

Photo by: Federico Alegría

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Have you ever wondered why black and white seems to be a standard in street photography? Well, like any other cultural output, it responds to multiple causes. Here we’ll talk a bit about some of the main reasons why monochrome images are so popular in street photography!

But before arriving at those reasons, a bit of historical context needs to be done. Back in the latest days of film, choosing between black and white or colour was a crucial decision to make. You couldn’t simply toggle between formats like we do nowadays. Many photographers carried at least two cameras, one loaded with monochrome and the other with colour film. To some extent, we can say that black and white nowadays is a matter of post-production and not something that should be done with the camera.

Note to Haters: Yes, we know that there are digital cameras bundled with modified sensors that can capture true black and white in a panchromatic way.

Going even further back in time we’ll notice that black and white photography has been around us a bit longer than colour film. There is of course some debate around the exact amount of time for that advantage, but let’s say that commercial colour film wasn’t available for us until the mid-twentieth century.

So, why if colour was highly desired by earlier photographers we keep on switching to black and white? Here are some of our answers to that highly complex question.

Out of Legacy

As street photographers we tend to learn and consume differently than other photographers. We admire past street photographers, and we all have seen countless photos made during the golden age of street photography. Therefore we can’t easily escape from that influence that has shaped our perception about street photography for so long.

The particular moment in time that we are referencing here is during the mid-40’s and forward; ergo the post-war era. Many photographers explored the capabilities of faster photographic tools (cameras, lenses, film), enabling more candid shots, which is one of the most highly pursued elements of street photography.

We are still heavily biased by the visual legacy past masters created during that time, and there is nothing wrong about it. But, it is important to pin-point out that Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rebecca Lepkoff or Robert Doisneau shot black and white photos because colour film was simply unreachable to them. And not because of a creative or artistic decision.

Timeless Quality

The theme on legacy takes us to the next cause for having a lot of black and white photos when it comes to street imagery. Before getting ahead it is important to make a distinction, so let’s not confuse “timeless” with “vintage”. Vintage or old photos give their-selves away due to context elements like clothing, appliances or cars. Timeless refers to a quality that some photos have to make it hard to contextualize it around a moment in time. Colour photography makes this quite easier because we tend to react in a symbolic way to specific types of hues, and we know how the colours of a photo from the sixties diverts from one taken in the nineties. Therefore, for people pursuing that timeless quality, monochrome images tend to work quite efficiently.

Flexible and Generous

Black and white decisions could be quite lifesaver under some circumstances. And since film it has been quite generous and flexible with us photographers in general.

Film Days

If you have developed film you’ll know how easy it is to develop black and white rolls when compared to colour ones. Beyond the different processes depending on their nature (negative and slide or transparency films) colour film had, it was quite hard to nail perfect results because the chemical had to be at a precise temperature, otherwise results came out a bit funny. This could be desired for creative purposes, but definitely not for documentary ones.

Black and white on the other hand was more generous and flexible, you could develop it at different temperatures as long as you compensate with time, and nothing wrong happened if the chemical warmed up a bit during the process. Monochrome film can even be developed with coffee and some vitamin C, so yeah, it was way easier to develop it when compared to colour.

Digital Era

Some photographers tend to diffuse exposure decisions (like high ISO settings) with black and white conversions. And there is nothing wrong with that, post-processing is part of the photographic process. But the true power of black and white comes with tone and contrast enhancements during raw image development stages.

The best way to develop a photograph black and white photograph is by contrasting the colours inside the image, and not simply by pulling contrast and clarity sliders. This was achieved with coloured filters during the days of film, and the topic is quite vast so we won’t cover it here. Although, we can share a pretty well written book on the topic with you.

When compared to colour images, black and white offers a broader room for contrast and tone enhancements. Develop a black and white photograph in your favourite raw image processor, and exaggerate the results a bit by deeply contrasting complementary colours. After doing that, try to apply the same values to a colour photo, and you’ll immediately see some odd-looking results. 

That last thing above is the ultimate reason why we consider black and white to be both more generous and flexible when compared to colour images.

Message Enhancement

Last but not least, there is the thing around delivering a message in an efficient way. When it comes to distractions imposed by colour there is no better example than street photography. But, how does colour can derive from attention? Simple, because when one walks down the streets, there is almost zero control of the elements residing inside a frame. You have to expose quickly, and compose even quicker, and you simply can’t decide on a beautifully designed colour-palette. You have to work with the colours in front of you, and in the majority of cases they simply don’t get along.

There are extreme cases in which colour has been a signature for some street photographers like Helen Levitt or Saul Leiter, and achieving that aesthetic level is definitely a goal for many of us. Sure colour can be tweaked out in brilliant ways, but for some people spending that much time in front of a computer screen is not quite appealing as you might think.

(Beyond) The Fine Art Look

Some people tend to relate black and white with fine art, and there is a reason for that. Since its birth, photography struggled a lot for gaining recognition within the fine art world. And of course, photographs were heavily down-seen, and were severely considered as mechanical reproductions of life with no artistic and plastic value.

Photography spent a lot of time dealing with that condition; and even tried to mimic the looks of pictorialism during some time (that’s why earlier photographs of people were all blurry and soft-focused) in order to gain acceptance as a valid art form. Eventually it became popular because it actually democratized the access to portraits and images, forcing painting to pursue different means of expression.

Landscape was the first photography genre that became accepted by the fine art world. The images made by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and the whole f/64 squad are great examples of what fine art photography was during the early mid-twentieth century. 

Street Photography finally had it’s break into the fine art world after John Szarkowski’s bold move of mounting an entire street/documentary photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. The exhibition consisted of 94 photographs made by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, and the only thing that all these photos had in common with the previously accepted fine art photographs was the black and white format.

By that time colour film had some years of being around, but it was still considered as vernacular or domestic. And it started gaining artistic status just after some hard efforts made by photographers like William Eggleston or Luigi Ghirri during the late-70’s and 80’s.

Black and white has some history of being closer to the fine art world, but that shouldn’t be the standard anymore in our times.

A Personal Reflection on Black and White Street Photographs

After a decade of doing street photographs I must recognize something, it is extremely hard for me to make good street colour photographs. Since my early days of photography in 2009 I’ve been quite fascinated by a specific type of colour, but I simply couldn’t emulate it in a precise and consistent way.

After some years of swimming deeper into the lighten-waters of photography I stumbled into the name of that particular colour that allured my so much. That particular one was produced by Kodachrome 64, a common denominator among all the colour photos of some of the aforementioned photographers like Levitt and Eggleston.

In 2016 I noticed that Fujifilm had embedded some colour profiles on their cameras, and my romantic relationship with this brand began. Therefore, I have no excuses nowadays for not making colour street photography but my own flaws as a photographer. When it comes to street photography I do pursuit colour, trust me, I do, but I have only been successful just a handful of times. That doesn’t mean that I have to discard the photos that don’t look good in colour, I simplu transform them into black and white and they look great for me.

This is a sincere confession that I just recently came able to recognise after examining my work with a critical perspective. If you are quite seasoned photographers right now, and haven’t done this sort of exercise with your work, I sincerely invite you folks to observe your work in a critical way; and ask yourselves why you do what you do?, and why you do it like that?

On Hacking the COVID-19 Days as a Photographer

We know that we are going through some rough times these days, and we would be naive and even irresponsible for not taking that into account. We are struggling very hard to stay locked-down, and as street photographers, this is tough. We love wandering and getting lost in the streets. And we are quite aware of how tempting the current solitude cities are experiencing right now is for shooting some frames, please stay home.

Technology and its speed has dragged us quite bad, and we have forgotten to spend some quality time with our own photographs. We are constantly pushed to posting images on a daily basis, and right now that can’t or at least shouldn’t be done. Go back to your archive, spend some time with your own photos, analyze them with a critical eye, and meditate about your own craft. Lets squeeze the time that we have at our hands right now, and hopefully will spend these odd moments in a less frustrating way.

Said That!

Alright folks, we hope that you find this post nurturing for your craft. This article came up after having a virtual gathering, and asking ourselves “why does black and white is so predominant in street photographs?”. We love black and white street photographs; and we also love coloured ones too. The important thing about a nice photograph is that it has something meaningful to tell, otherwise it could be just a good looking photograph diluted in somebody’s Instagram feed.

Both colour and monochrome are just creative decisions along the process of delivering a valuable aesthetic experience for both you and the people out there consuming your shots. Whatever you do, don’t do things out of mimicking or replication. Try to always have clear answers to your decisions, and be critical when taking them. If you start doing this, you’ll eventually find yourselves in more control of your own photographic style and creative process.