Street Photography: Black & White or In Living Color!

April 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

When I was a kid, my Dad gave me a Brownie camera when my little brother, George, was born.   The three of us ~~ George, the Brownie and me were joined together for the next several years.  Everything he did (laughing, crying, crazy hats perched on his head or face covered in food) became grist for my candid camera obsession.  Aside from him being the subject, there was one other constant ~~ it was all shot in black and white film.  It was simply the way I viewed life through a camera.  My father was a photographer who worked with a medium format camera and, of course, black and white film.  The newspapers and most magazine photos were in black and white.  Not to belabor the point, this was the standard.

Not that there wasn’t color film, but the film/developing cost was much higher.

Color photography has a history that dates back to the 1840s.  Early on, photographers Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot worked on developing a range of color instead of monochromatic images.  Others, including John HerschelBecquerel and Niepce de St. Victor experimented with different processes but there was no way to permanently fix the images.  They all faded almost immediately. Photographers took to hand coloring images, a technique which lasted for 100 years.    However, during that time period, there were trials, failures and successes with refining both color film and a developing process.   And there certainly were photographers producing color images.

But it wasn’t until the 1930’s when Kodak employees, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky (nicknamed “Man” and “God”), developed a film that produced high-quality color.  Enter Kodachrome!  Basically it was a color transparency first sold as movie film and then as  35mm and 828 formats for still cameras.  One downside was that processing was complicated with few labs available to do it.  By 1939 Agfa released the first color negative film.  In 1942 Kodak claimed that Kodacolor was the world’s first true color negative film.

As the twentieth century progressed new technologies improved films, processing, archival permanence and cameras.  And allowed for mass marketing.  By the latter decades of the century color photography was part of everyday life. Enter the age of digital photography!

Ok, so today I don’t have to carry two cameras, one loaded with color and the other with black and white film.  Now I can shoot with one camera but the question remains:  what kind of image do I want to produce? Some classists felt black and white was the only way to go.  The icons, Brassaï, Kertész, Cartier-Bresson and Adams, are all known for their black and white images and their disparagement of color.  Most of my books and all of the photography classes I have taken only referenced their images in that medium.  So I dug deeper.  Shock of shocks ~~ there are color photos from all these idols.

First of all, the master of monochrome, Cartier-Bresson shot color photos of China in 1958.  André Kertész began working with color Polaroid later in life.  Ansel Adams began shooting Kodachromes between 1946 and 1948.  But for me, the biggest discovery was Brassai’s color work in 1957 in New York and Louisiana for Holiday Magazine.  I won’t say that the color photos were their most iconic work but I will say that they certainly used color and if they were living today they would probably be using color, digital cameras and iPhones.

Our current choices in the age of digital capture are numerous.  You can both shoot and view in black & white, if you are shooting in RAW the color info will be saved, or you can shoot in color and post-process in black and white. What are you trying to capture, impart to the viewer?  Black and white has that clarity of subject, contrast and a classic feel.  Color has that wow factor, that emotional impact and is part of our everyday vision.  It is yet another element of the language of photography.

Several years ago, I took a Digital Workshop class with a really great teacher, Jean Miele.  His advice was to shoot in color but to be aware of the colors and capture a full range of tonal contrast, defined shapes and strong textures.  This would ensure the necessary base for translation into monochrome.  This class gave me a whole new view of color and digital processing. Now when I am out doing my serious street shooting, I always shoot in color because I want total control if the picture is going to be translated into black and white.  When I am just playing and experimenting, I shoot with an old Power Shot or with my iPhone App in B&W.  I often do a quick image check in Photoshop by turning it into black and white.   It’s a truth check for me because if the composition is strong and the tonalities are right, the color will add yet another element.  This is also another way of constantly training my eyes so that whatever story I am seeing, it will have the impact I want.

Choice and communication is what is it all about!

P.S.  I still love black & white film . . . What about you?

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