A Curious Quandry

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by michael j hoffman, Nov 13, 2008.

  1. Just wondering (blame the NyQuil)...
    If the purpose of street photography is to hold a mirror up to society, and if that mirrior is to reflect society's realism(s), why then does a disproportionate amount of street photography continue to be done in black-and-white instead of color?
    I am a street photographer. I've presented most of my images, over the years, in black-and-white. Lately, I am wondering why.
    Is the use of black-and-white the photographer's way of offering a mise-en-scene influence on an image that is supposed to be based in nearly objective realism? Is it all, any, or none of this?
    Michael J Hoffman
  2. objective realism
    What the heck is that and why are you taking Nyquil (is that a tranquilizer?)?
  3. If the purpose of street photography is to hold a mirror up to society, . . .
    You're starting with a false premise. While that may be a purpose of street photography, it's not the purpose.
  4. NyQuil is a cold remedy.

    Okay, I'll rephrase the question in the form of a question:

    Why is so much of street photography done in black-and-white?

    Michael J Hoffman
  5. maybe because B&W has a documentary-like quality to it, especially film. think noir movies, Life magazine, etc. for some its more classic. (also its easier to make a blurry B&W shot look interesting.)

    with digital you have the option of shooting in color and converting to monochrome, so you can choose an aesthetic look to suit your own tastes easier.

    if your mirror is a colored one, then shoot in 'vivid' mode -- there are no absolute rules you have to follow.
  6. One of the reasons is to focus on the subject matter that is not color. Sometimes, not always- color can be a distraction from the intended
    focus of
    the picture, or it can become the primary subject itself. The grey scale can also be a primary subject. It's up to the photographer to decide
    what the photograph is about and how
    best to convey it.
  7. B&W also has a greater tolerance to over/under exposure then color film, or so I've been led to believe. I'm not to sure if this applies to digital cameras. Back in the heydays of the 50's and 60's Tri-X became popular as a robust film that could take a lot of abuse exposure-wise and still produce an acceptable (although perhaps not great) photograph by most technical standards. It seems like this was the most favored film for street shooters and photojournalists back then. This is a luxury since as we all know, you often don't get another chance to get the shot. I personally shoot in B&W because I like processing and printing my work myself and because my tastes just simply lean towards B&W for most photography.
  8. Where can I buy this NyQuil?
  9. "Why is so much of street photography done in black-and-white?"

    Simple, because I like it which seems the best reason possible.
  10. Actually most street photography I see these days is digital and in color. I still shoot black&white because that's how i see
    internally. I blank out the reality of color and focus on the world around me.
  11. The answer to your fist question is: If you're questioning why you use B&W then perhaps you should try something else.
    There are no rules for this, just your preference and the way you see. Cheers, P.
  12. I lie colour - and all of my photography is colour :)
    The only time I did b/w was when I shot an orphanage - everything there was brown. The walls, the uniforms on the children, the benches, everthing. And brown is my least favorite colour. So I changed it to black and white.

    My style of street photographer is quite simple - I like to isolate the subject. Colour is always one of the reasons I chose the scene as well. http://www.photo.net/photo/7787242

    For people shooting more complex set-ups, an over-abundance of colour can be distracting.
  13. NyQuil is a cold remedy
    OK that is the opposite of a tranquilizer. It is legal "speed". An Ephedrine derivative. Won't let you sleep.
  14. As a medium for documentary photography, I believe B&W has been used to mislead the viewing public.

    As a child growing up in the '50s & '60s, when the Cold War was "hot", my long-lasting impression of life in the
    USSR - devoid of human warmth, depressing, cold and dirty (gritty ?) - was largely due to the fact that almost
    all the
    images from there were B&W. While some of the feeling conveyed by these B&W images might have had some merit (and
    I am not discounting the photographers' choice of subject matter either), I
    wonder if colour images would have invoked different (more positive) feelings about the USSR that were a little
    closer to the truth.

    I also believe that my conceptions of pre-color-film history were surely bent by the B&W-only images of those

    I guess my point is, I don't believe exclusive use of B&W film is well suited to documentary reporting. If used,
    its effect should be tempered with colour images (in the same documentary piece) to maintain objectivity/integrity.

    Cheers! Jay
  15. Jay, good observations... although I'd say that objectivity may not be the ideal for most documentaries... Documentaries are made with an intention and that intention may be executed with integrity, but objectivity may have nothing to do with it. Before I started taking pictures I used to think that the camera was a recording device but that couldn't be farther from the truth. If B&W can project grittiness it can also capture the warmth of a place and a people.

    Side note: I lived in Warsaw for a year and the proper color for Poland is black and white. The long blocks of flats are grim and they were inherited from--and inspired by--the Soviet Union. This isn't to say that ALL of Poland was grim, but if your intention is to make Disneyland look like a slave camp that also can be achieved... in living color or in black and white.

    I think Ton said it best... "simply because I like it..."
  16. I'm not sure- other than maybe that grey tones look beautiful- that "I like it" or "I see that way" gets to the heart of the question. Why
    do you like it, prefer it, or see that
    way? Why does it work or not?

    Another thing not specifically mentioned is that black and white references in certain ways photographic history.
  17. You got a point Ray... aside from "just liking it" let's try this:

    Since I was a kid I've always thought of newsprint as being definitive. That would be a B&W world. With gray tones you have solidity, a world that already appears to be part of the past. Also, artistically, the shadows and contrasts make for greater drama and even add (I'll risk this one) a spiritual dimension to a photograph precisely because you're capturing the essence of a moment rather than the moment itself. Or, I should say, you stand a greater chance at capturing the essence of a moment. By turning the world into black and white you stand a better chance at transforming"reality" (so called) into something more symbolic or iconic.

    This isn't an either/or statement...

    Pass the Nyquil...
  18. I meant an Either/Or argument...
  19. the choice for b&w nowadays may be considered a conscious one. Since I started shooting digital I always have a choice. Still, about 95% of it will be conversed to b&w. Apart from my personal preference I firmly believe that colour often works distracting while aesthetically b&w has more impact, subjective as the last argument may be.

    As far as Jay's arguments are concerned I think it's not b&w as such that is misleading but photography as a whole because it's always the photographer who decides what is shown and how. It's his reality rather than the factual reality.
  20. Good points for sure. With the advent of affordable, readily available digital capture, selection of B&W or
    colour is definitely a conscious choice.

    My point was about documentary (as in documenting an event, period, person etc) not about artistic expression.

    I feel that documentary work may be losing its credibility (and thus its impact) because it is becoming less
    about documentation and more about personal (or institutional) editorializing. Of course, choice of B&W over
    colour is not the only factor in this...but presenting images in B&W can be very effective when one wants to
    alter reality. I believe it is more effective than colour in this regard, because "engineered" colouring can be
    relatively easy
    for most folks to spot. Afterall, most folks live in world of colour (and to most of us the world does not look
    like Velvia).

    Remember the old saw..."just the facts ma'am"?

    Almost nobody would argue that images significantly altered by a computer should be unacceptable for documentary
    work. However, the same standard is not applied to the presentation a body of work that is purposefully biased
    through the conscious selection of B&W.

    With the image capture technology currently available, there is no excuse for exclusive use of B&W in
    documentary work if that exclusive use tends to bias the document.

    To argue that B&W has more impact than colour just supports my point. That enhanced "impact" was a choice, made
    by the
    photographer or the editor, to support a point of view, to the detriment of faithfully documenting the event
    (person, time period, or, whatever).

    There are better things than Nyquill.


    Cheers! Jay
  21. Jay, now you're turning philosophical on me ;-)

    "...but presenting images in B&W can be very effective when one wants to alter reality" True, just as the reverse is true, using b&w to emphasize reality.

    "I feel that documentary work may be losing its credibility (and thus its impact) because it is becoming less about documentation and more about personal (or institutional) editorializing"
    If that is true than that may be because there is an increased quantity which has diluted the quality somewhat.Film or digital, it's quite possible to produce an "honest" documentary series.
  22. Jay - I totally agree and that's one of the reasons I largely stick with colour. I'm currently living in Ukraine, and if I turn all my pics to B/W that definately sends a vibe of everything being slightly dramatic/sad/dreary ect...... When the reality is that despite the poverty, the harshness of life, Ukraine is a colourful and peaceful place where there are many beautiful things.
    http://www.photo.net/photo/7373933 orphenage in B/W
    http://www.photo.net/photo/8057914 same room, same group of children, different day. Two different aspects of reality.
  23. Myriam,

    Awesome comparison that evidences the power of selective, presentational choices by the photographer. That, and besides that, the images are just plain great. Thanks for sharing!

    Michael J Hoffman
  24. Documentary street photography, done as you go, in the moment I think is harder to compose because you don't have
    much control over the surroundings or the subject. You might not have much or even any foreknowledge of the area
    or its people. I find this work requires on-the-fly composition. Color in photos must be managed carefully -
    it's another compositional element. If you are already working with a tricky composition, why make it harder by
    including a neon orange awning that will only take away from your subject? Doing it in B&W takes away that
    distraction. It allows you to change the what the viewer will see first in the image.

    The other thing color does is add a sort of date-stamp on the image. You can tell what year it is usually to 5
    or 10 years in a color photo of a location. You can see the colors on the cars, the color ways of the clothing,
    hair colors - all of that gives your image a definite time frame. Color can tell you a lot about the geographic
    locale of the shot too. If you want your image to say "1972 in America" just add an avocado green oven and a
    lady in some rust-colored or tan pants. If you shoot in B&W, your image has a much better chance of seeming
    "anytime". The viewer will not be distracted by what year it was, or what location, most likely, and will focus
    on other things.

    Maybe some B&W street photographers prefer to avoid the distractions or extra perspective that can be added by
  25. My take (without reading al the above post) is that way back, when color was not available and when lots of amateurs and pros did their own proccesing that started the trend and we just continue with it as the thing to do. The other ones drinking Ny Quil ask for the lack of color.
  26. I used to shoot only E6 with only the best 35mm film gear available and over a dozen lenses (never really went
    digital) and then decided I wanted to simplify every aspect of my photography down to it's most basic elements
    and just concentrate on the aesthetics. I wanted to become a purist and I think that B&W contributes to that
    style of photography. Not to mention it's often greater impact on shape, tone and composition without the
    distraction of color.

    Basic camera, basic lens and only B&W film. Not only is B&W my preferred medium for "street" and documentary
    photography but, as has been said in this post already, I don't want the added distraction of color to take away
    from the point I'm trying to get across, or from the aesthetic I'm trying to execute in my pictures. Black and
    White film has such beautiful tonality and contrast and some other, more intangible aspects and is also very
    forgiving of exposure "modifications" - nothing against digital conversions either.

    There are some exceptions though - when talking about good street photography. Someone else posted this link in
    the PN the other day; I can't find it again, or I'd give them the credit they deserve for posting this
    enlightening and funny photographer for all of us to see. This guy is an excellent example of what some people
    think "Street" should be and he carries it out masterfully in B&W and in color. Take a
  27. Could old age could be a reason? As a certified old fart, I grew up seeing most movies in black and white, seeing
    most TV in black and white, seeing most still pictures taken by friends and family in black and white and all
    newspaper photos were black and white. Even a good percentage of the automobiles on the road were black. Very
    few automobiles had the bright colors we have today, let alone the metallics. Few buildings even down to single
    family residences had much in the way of color until after World War II. It almost seemed like off-white was
    considered a bold color in my youth. An earlier poster who talks about film noir may have hit on the most prevalent
    answer present in most people's minds. It's hard to realize that teenagers and twenty-somethings have seen little
    black and white with even so many newspaper photos being in color.

    I also agree with the poster who talked about the Soviet Union being gritty and basically colorless in the large cities.
    I can tell you through remembering eyes that downtown Los Angeles in the 1940s was pretty void of anything but
    subtle tones. This was in an area of Southern California where color could be found in beachfront properties and the
    ocean. However getting inland or in the big city, things looked black and white or the sepia of earth-tone muted semi-
    colors. Easter dresses and bonnets and Christmas red and green often cheered people because of the color
    difference. People would watch parades to see the bright colors of floats and marching band uniforms, which were
    entertaining as an unusual color experience. Early New Year's Rose Parades drew people thousands of miles in an
    era before the average man traveled, just to see the beautiful colors.

    Business offices were most likely drab places in terms of color. Men were required to wear black, gray, or very dark
    blue suits and only white shirts would do. I remember being counseled by one of the more senior members of the
    major bank I worked for because my tie had a little too much color in it. It was a "Club" tie, which in the 70s would
    have been considered dull and regressive, with its subtle gray-silvered and dark blue theme with a very gentle hint of
    maroon where the two colors met. If one took two pictures of our offices with the staff present, one in color and one
    in black and white, there would be little difference. When interviewing for my position at the bank, the manager
    walked with me to my car in their parking lot as I was leaving and told me he thought my choice of a black Cadillac
    was very appropriate to the job I was seeking and all but hired me on the spot.

    It was a black and white world in the big city. Most street shots are in big cities. Perhaps it's traditional.
  28. I started off shooting color negatives then changed to color slides and wasn't very good at either one. Stopped shooting for
    about a year then switched to rangefinders and black&white with much improved results. That answered the question for me. I
    don't see any reason to change. I still shoot digital color with my Digilux and even my iPhone but just to keep my eye sharp and
    have pictures I can quickly email to friends.
  29. Could old age could be a reason?
    Could be. I am grateful to the "old farts". May they live long.
  30. Why, when I look at your website are all the Flickr photos "unavailable"? Is this yet another Imac issue?
  31. Photography doesn't represent an objective reality regardless of the type of film or camera. It's not real, it's two dimensional, it's compressed to a relatively narrow dynamic range, and it has a frame around it to exclude whatever amount of context the photographer chooses. Whether or not it has color doesn't change this. I can see how one could argue that color would be a little closer to reality, but I can also see how one could argue that color is distracting. I don't think one is necessarily better and I suspect our preference for B&W is more a matter of...well...personal preference. However, I don't necessarily see street photography as having the same goals or obligations as straight forward reportage documentary photography. Holding a mirror up to society is not my goal. I think of it more as a means for sensitive observers of society to bring attention to things that might otherwise go unnoticed. Not objective at all. And I just like B&W.
  32. I've always wondered if it's not partially for historic reasons, since many of the early work in this area was done before color film was available (ie Capa, Vacaro, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, etc) . The genre is thus somewhat inextricably linked with the feel/flavor of B&W. Sort of how most people think of Leica cameras as the only "real" rangefinder since it was arguably the first good option for street photos.

    To me a better question is why do people stick with B&W. I think the answer is that some prefer the look of the pictures (texture, grain, contrast), the latitude of the film, and others stick with it because they're purists. Certainly not everyone sticks with B&W, in fact I really enjoy both. I was in Hanoi and shot color on the streets, it's such a colorful and vibrant city it seemed a shame to filter all of that out with B&W. That said, most of my favorite street shots of all time tend to be mainly B&W.

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