Find a street that particularly interests you – it may be local or further afield. Shoot 30 colour images and 30 black and white images in a street photography style.
In your learning log, comment on the differences between the two formats. What difference does colour make? Which set do you prefer and why? (OCA C&N)
I chose the high street in Preston for this exercise – I was visiting Preston for Wilkinson Camera’s annual ‘Digital Splash’ exhibition and to watch two of the presenters there; so Preston was convenient and interesting because of its mix of old and new, well-maintained and dilapidated.
All photos were taken with a Fuji X-T1, using jpeg and Fuji’s in-camera colour (velvia) and black and white (monochrome). Using ISO 1600 and 3200 due to the dim light conditions of the autumn afternoon. The lens used was a Fujinon 35mm f1.4 (53mm efl). I deliberately did not use RAW to avoid the temptation of simply selecting which photos to treat in B&W or colour on post-processing. This way I could experience the impact of working in colour and black and white had on the choices I made when taking the photos.
click images to launch full-size gallery
These images are the selects from the photos I shot over a period of two hours. Comparing the two formats:
The b&w are more dependent on structure and patterns within the images for their effectiveness. This is illustrated by photos 6 and 7 – I converted the colour jpeg to b&w for this exercise; while both photos are full of shadow areas, the colour of the sky adds interest and lifts the image. Image 1 shows the repetitive pattern of the sweet jars in the shop window and doesn’t miss the colour.
Without colour there is no obvious feeling of temperature in the images – they tend to appear cold unless light and warmth are signified. B&W Image 2 – showing a bankrupt book shop – has a heightened atmosphere of gloom that would not be present in a colour version.
Colour allows another level of connection or contrast between elements within the frame, like in image 2, where there is a connection between the reds in the display of the shop window and of the lady’s jumper. Or, the KFC sign and the sunset.
Colour can grab your attention – in image 4) the bright red for sale sign in the middle of the image draws us in. This image also shows a greater dynamic range than is possible with b&w.
The removal of colour from images that include no colour of interest allows the viewer to concentrate on form or texture in the image. An example is photo 8, of Café Nero’s facade in the dimming light. The image is simplified by the removal of colour.
As we don’t see the world in black and white, B&W images can appear more interesting (less every-day).
In this post I take a brief tour of contemporary street photography and consider the difference colour has made to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white; look at the shift away from the influence of surrealism; and consider the use of irony to comment on cultural values.
Joel Meyerowitz (b 1938) is considered to be one of the pioneers in the use of the colour in the genre. While he was influenced by the black and white work of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Westerbeck Jr C), he explains that he did not even think about whether to use colour film or black and white. “The world was in colour. It was just so obvious to me. I had no idea people were snobbish about colour. To me, black and white just seemed back there, historical.” (O’Hagan S). I think a significant aspect of the surreal quality of black and white street photographs lies in the fact that they have no colour and that is not how we consciously see the world. Meyerowitz’s work is full of the light, colour and structural patterns of NYC. Many of the images feature saturated blocks of colour, perhaps echoing the bright-lights of the advertising hoards. The work also makes use of irony; for example in an image of a besuited man who has tripped and lies on his back on the edge of the road, we do not expect to see a workman stepping over the man as if he were a piece of litter. This element adds irony to what would otherwise just be an unfortunate event – New Yorkers too busy with their own business to help the businessman.
Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009) was, like Meyerowitz a New York based photographer. Looking at her online collection of work at MoMa it is apparent that even when colour photography had been established, she still chose to work often in black and white. This is a contrast to Meyerowitz’s contemporary work, which seems to be entirely in colour. However, Johnson tells us that the first decade of Levitt’s colour work (slides) was stolen and never recovered; so perhaps the balance between colour and black and white images maybe have been different if this had not happened. Levitt’s use of colour is far more subdued that Meyerowitz’s, as are her subjects – she seems more concerned with the quieter moments of everyday life than the chaos of the city. I did not see the use of irony in her work, which has a gentle lyrical quality rather than a brash, poking approach.
Joel Sternfield (b 1944) was also a pioneer of the use of colour photography outside of advertising. His images make a subtle, understated use of colour and often capture the banal – there is nothing of Cartier-Bresson’s coming together of geometry in a decisive moment to make images that are compelling through their lines and shapes. The use of colour, however, adds another dimension that too draws us to the images.
Coombes in his BBC article explains that Paul Graham was one of a small group of British photographers fighting against the predominance of black and white documentary photography in the 1970s. One has to look hard into this image of a roundabout in Belfast to understand what it is about (and perhaps it doesn’t lend itself well to the small screen). There is a soldier running across the scene; Graham is showing us something that we might miss, a reflection on the UK’s surveillance society. In his image, bus converted to café, there is a strong sense of irony – a mode of public transport has been converted into a road-side café in a lay-by. There are political connotations here, with the state and availability of public transport in the UK continually under debate. This is a very British topic, and I suspect the irony would not be appreciated for those living outside that context.
I would guess that Cartier-Bresson would not consider the Graham’s roundabout worthy of photographing – it does not present any of the virtues of composition and symmetry that were important to him. The photograph works at a different level, it is not so much concerned with aesthetics.
Martin Parr is a British photographer who shares a generous amount of information about his work and himself on his own website. His admission to Magnum was controversial amongst some existing members, including Cartier-Bresson; Parr tells the story:
Henri came to my Small World opening in Paris in 1995 and said I was from another planet! I always cherish this remark, and wrote back, I know what you mean, but why shoot the messenger?
Parr was inspired by Meyerowitz to make the change to colour photography and, like Meyerowitz, uses bright, saturated colours. He also now uses digital photography rather than colour film, explaining that his use of flash enables him to capture the same colour brightness. His photography is based around projects of everyday topics that interest him; The Last Resort is a reflection, often brutal, on the state of British seaside resorts that have fallen into a state of disrepair as air-travel to warmer climates became more affordable, leaving only those less fortunate behind. With Parr’s vivid use of colours, we do not expect to see holiday-makers surrounded by litter and decay, but rather something more promotional. There is something ironic in the use of bright colours to show low-class subjects in decaying surroundings.
There has been a strong shift in street photography from the capturing of a moment to create an aesthetically pleasing photo, towards one of social and political commentary. I can understand why Cartier-Bresson and Martin Parr would have clashed – they indeed are from ‘different planets’.
Coombes P (2011).BBC [online]. Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13133461
Howarth S and McLaren S (2010). Street photography now. Paperback ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
O’Hagan S (2011). The Guardian [online]. Paul Graham: ‘The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether’. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/11/paul-graham-interview-whitechapel-ohagan
Jun P (2012). It was here photography [blog]. Visual Irony. Available from: http://itwasherephotography.com/blog/visual-irony/ [accessed 17.10.15]
23RD AUGUST 2015 / 0 COMMENTS / EDIT DAIDO MORIYAMA – BOOK
I recently read the small format book on Daido Moriyama, that includes examples of his work with accompanying narrative and a short biography of Moriyama written by Nishii.
The biography gives some fascinating insight into the life of the artist and his aims. His dislike of urbanisation, participation in an international youth movement, and the PROVOKE photography movement in Japan.
In the context of my other recent research, I was interested to read that the PROVOKE group proposed a ‘distance’ between the photographer and the viewer, implying psychological as well as special distance. Nishii states that Moriyama and his associates were the first photographers to be aware of the dual distance.
Moriyama is a street photographer and enjoys the life and crowds of busy cities. His photographs are all in black and white and processed as high contrast images, with shadow details often lost in blackness and highlights bleached out. This is not the documentary-style of Walker Evans, but something that feels dark and dramatic. In the Tate Modern video, Moriyama tells us how monochrome feels better to him, more abstract and focused on forms. He also explains (and we see him use) a compact camera with a zoom lens for his photography.
Moriyama see photography as a way of allowing people to connect with their memories. The lack of detail and texture in the images seems to reflect this – they are like hazy memories, dreamlike. Perhaps I am also drawn to them as an antidote to the extreme sharp and detailed images that are currently common place.
Despite Moriyama’s work being exhibited in art galleries around the work, he explains that he does not really see his work as art and is more interested in the book format for showing his photos.
A great photographer with a clear and distinctive vision for his photos.
Nishii K. Daido Moriyama. London, Phaidon Press Ltd, 2012 edition.
Tate Modern, Video. Daido Moriyama: In Pictures. Available from: http://bcove.me/uodutw8o [accessed 23.8.15]
The feedback I received on assignment 3 encouraged me to look more into modern street photographers, including Garry Winogrand (1928-1984).
The Fraenkel gallery displays a good number of Winogrand’s photos. Looking at these reveals the extraordinary range of human activity and emotion he captures in his work. His images capture moments of human interaction and make one wonder what was happening at the time. Viewing them is like visiting a human zoo. It is human life caught by surprise, unposed, in its natural state. And close up.
O’Hagan comments of Winogrand’s approach, explaining that ‘while his contemporary, Joel Meyerowitz, stalked the streets of New York trying to be invisible, Winogrand did not mind being noticed. Revealingly, though, many of his reluctant subjects only seem to register his presence at the very moment he presses the shutter.’ This same approach is evident in Engler’s documentary of Winogrand at work, but we can also observe how quick he was to frame and shoot before returning to tuning his camera’s settings – it seems that some subjects are not sure whether they have been photographed or if Winogrand is just adjusting his camera.
In Resnick’s fascinating account of a workshop with Winogrand, he explains:
Incredibly, people didn’t react when he photographed them. It surprised me because Winogrand made no effort to hide the fact that he was standing in way, taking their pictures. Very few really noticed; no one seemed annoyed. Winogrand was caught up with the energy of his subjects, and was constantly smiling or nodding at people as he shot. It was as if his camera was secondary and his main purpose was to communicate and make quick but personal contact with people as they walked by.
We are also told that Winogrand used two meterless Leica M4 with 28mm lenses. A small, unobtrusive set up. This focal length adds to the feeling of being close to the subjects in his picture.
My lessons from Winograd are to frame and shoot quickly – do not send a message that you are about to take a photograph and, therefore, disturb the unfolding scene. And, close up is interesting – we can see the emotions, the whites of the eyes!
In feedback I received on assignment 3, I was recommended to look at modern developments in street photography, including the book Street Photography Now. I owned this book prior to starting the OCA course, but felt it would be interesting to revisit having now spent a few months studying.
The book is an international guide to over 40 contemporary street photographers, providing not only a selection of images from each photographer but words from each on their motivations and ways of working. There is also commentary on the evolution of street photography and brief analysis of the works included. The insights provided brush-away the cobwebs from the traditionalist views of street photography based on the works of Cartier-Bresson et al from the early 20th century. Some of these views are still pervasive on certain photo-sharing sites that demand, for example, black and white images only, no post-processing, no staged images.
The book is remarkable for its breadth and depth of coverage and commentary on genre now, its developments and challenges it faces. The main lessons I took away from the book after reading it for the second time were:
There are no rules in street photography – the best practitioners make their own rules
Motivations for making images on the street are as varied as the number photographers in the book. From serious social commentary to amusing visual puns.
Without fail, the photos fill the frame and are full of visual interest. Many are close up. There are no dead spots.
Street photography often features people, but not always. Commentary 2 of the book, No Ideas But In Things, explores ‘still life’ street photography. One example is Nils Jorgensen’s image of shoes left on a corner pavement in the rain. Another is Matt Stuart’s photo displayed as the feature image of this blog post. I found this type of image compelling and not necessarily something I would look for when preoccupied with filling my frame with a person.
The street photographers featured have many different approaches to dealing with the challenge of taking uninvited images of people on the street. From what to me appears highly intrusive and even aggressive, through sneaky (unseen), to collaborative and spending time with the subjects. In certain jurisdictions some photographers talk about the challenges of privacy laws – a memorable example is Bruno Quinquet’s work in Japan, where it is legal to take photos of people, but not to publish them. To overcome this in his Salaryman Project he ensures that none of the subjects are recognisable, with either their faces obscured or blurred.
In summary, this book provides a lesson in experimentation for street photographers everywhere.
Howarth S and McLaren S (2010). Street photography now. Paperback ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
Coombes P (2010). BBC photoblog [online]. Street Photography Now – review. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/photoblog/2010/10/street_photography_now.html [accessed 27.6.15]
Having studied the photographs in the book, I first give my overall impressions of his work and approach to photography. My perspective is also influenced by watching and listening to Frank talk about his own work and demonstrating his approach to photography – see separate post on Leaving Home, Coming Home.
The photographs are thought-provoking, leaving us thinking about what is happening in them or the lives of the people featured. They reflect personalities.
Frank shoots close-up to people, we feel part of the images, part of what is happening to the protagonists. He is courageous in his approach to strangers. Though I suspect people took less notice of ‘street’ photographers at the time the images were taken (1955/6).
He is not constrained by showing complete object or scenes, he picks out what is interesting from the whole and puts it right in front of our eyes. For example, in US 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas we see the front view of half a car with a sleeping passenger. No need to show the whole context; teasing with the unseen makes the image more compelling.
There are often strong single points of focus in the images, that are not necessarily the obvious parts of the scene. For example in Movie premiere – Hollywood the obvious focus point would be the beautiful young actress in the foreground. However, she is blurred, not in sharp focus, and the point of focus falls on a middle-aged lady in the crowd, concentrating intensely on the scene in the foreground.
In many compositions there is a strong but subtle use of diagonals to either draw us into the image or across the image. In Rooming house, the balustrade of the stair leads the eye from the bottom right edge of the image to the top centre and the darkened upstairs.
Most images use a medium depth of field, with the objects in the foreground in focus, but the background unfocused. This is a contrast to much modern street photography that seems to rely upon deep depth of field – perhaps an easier option for capture a sharp image in the moment with modern cameras and high ISO capabilities. However, the use of medium depth of field seems to give greater intimacy to the images.
The OCA expressing your vision material (p62) states that Frank uses motion blur deliberately in The Americans, referencing Elevator – Miami Beach. However, I wonder whether the blur is a managed consequence of capturing spontaneous images in poor lighting conditions without a flash, rather than a choice made in the moment.
There is much to learn from this wonderful book, and I’m sure I will revisit it many times during my photographic journey!