In black and white street photography every subject(s) is made, to a greater or lesser extent, abstract by being converted into monochrome. Generally there is little doubt as to what the subject of the photograph is, or what the photograph is ‘about’ – usually for example a person(s) encountered in the street, the capture of a chance occurrence or visual coincidence, a graphic juxtaposition. In general, street photography in black and white is less ‘studied’ than in colour and allows subjects that are captured to be more easily visually isolated from their surroundings. A colour image of a street scene contains much more visual ‘information’ than an equivalent black and white one, the colour alone can hold the gaze of the viewer without the need to ask ‘what is being photographed here?’ Colour street photography has a filmic quality absent from black and white, and there usually seems to be a lot ‘going on’, much of which, from the black and white photographer point of view, is irrelevant.
There are exceptions to the above depending on the definition of ‘street photography’. For example Saul Leiter (b. 1923) and Ernst Hass (b. 1921) photographed city streets in both colour and black and white; broadly it could be said that their most abstract work was in colour. However, it’s arguable that they looked to the street for abstract imagery as an end in itself, whereas in black and white street photography the interest is in recording the activity on the street; the medium of black and white performs the abstraction from the normal (colour) point of view thereby providing insight.
The street I chose to photograph in both black and white and colour was in the tourist area of the city where I live. I concentrated on photographing the people on the street and after reviewing the sixty images (thirty of each) my preference is for the images in black and white.
The first two images in the Black and White gallery below (09142859 and 09143507) show how monochrome removes ambiguity from the image, leaving it somewhat stark and abrupt, qualities often shared with experience on ‘the street’. In contrast the first two images in the Colour gallery below are ambiguous – what is the main focus of interest here? Is it simply the two men walking, or the colour match/mismatch between the man’s sweater and his shirt (09143179); the girl walking through the group of tourists or is it the yellow handbag that ‘steals’ the image completely (09142853)? The individual in the third image of the Colour gallery (09143191) is ‘swamped’ by colour. The girl in the straw hat in the third image in the Black and White gallery (09142972) would, I suggest, be lost if the image was in colour; everything around would compete for the viewer’s attention even the colour of the arm used in framing. The fourth image in the Colour gallery (09143032) is a portrait but would I think be stronger in black and white for the reasons stated above.
Within the group of thirty colour images their strength lay when there was no single subject of the image, when the images was visually interesting but the composition was not focused on an individual — for example the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth image (09143483; 09143487; 09143545; 09143548) in the Colour gallery. Where an individual was the focus the colour was a distraction, for example the ninth and tenth image (09143503; 09143470) of the Colour gallery – in 09143470 the blue tinted glasses dominate.
In black and white street photography light and shade alone can generate interest in individuals without distraction, for example the fourth image (09142946) of the Black and White gallery. Equally, the individual in the fifth image (09143236) is isolated from the surroundings but not enough to lose the context of the photograph, something that would, I suggest, be reversed if the image was in colour. Again for similar reasons black and white is unsurpassed at recording the surreal absurdities of life: the sixth black and white image (09142919). Overall therefore I prefer the black and white group of photographs.
Black and White Gallery