This post came about in a search to find B&W photography by photographers with less than 10K followers on Instagram. Rather than critique each photographer’s entire feed of images, I’ve selected an image from each of these photographers whose work I admire, and tried to break down why it stands out to me. This was a huge learning experience for me, finding words to describe what I see when I look at an image, and what exactly I love about it. If you have never tried this, I suggest you do it and see what you come up with.
Peter DaSilva is an expert film shooter; his arsenal of medium format knowledge and body of work is rare to come across. I’m an admitted sucker for candid and quiet shots of young lovers. Sometimes when I visually dissect a monochrome image, I can’t help but wonder what it would look like in color. Color tends to add a warmth to skin that makes an image appear so intimate, almost like you can see and feel the heat radiating off the subject. But I looked at this image for a few moments and color didn’t even enter my mind; I could feel the heat in the air just by seeing the glisten of highlights on the couple’s faces. It makes me feel like it’s a hot August night, the concrete steps are slightly cooler than the hot air grates on the sidewalk, but none of this matters to the couple. They didn’t lay down thinking they would be symmetrically placed below a door of vertical lines leading down to steps of horizontal ones, but sometimes these things just work out in a photographers favor.
The fact that DaSilva also shoots with a 6×6 Rolliflex, means if the couple woke up, he would have looked like a creep bent down to compose and expose this image under a single building light illuminating their bed of steps. It’s such an intimate and vulnerable moment, with the man’s hand holding onto the woman’s arm, as the way they would likely lay in a soft bed. It makes you wonder where they came from, where they are going, how they ended up on the steps of an unknown building. A photo that gives away nothing specific yet leaves you creating stories in your head is a mark of a truly great image. Also, that film detail and grain in the shadows! It has everything: composition, perfect tonal range, intimacy.
Many of the images on Clay Benskin’s feed have this same intriguing and calculated visual tension – with balanced leading lines that sort of lead in every direction. Throughout his feed, he’s collected moments of people blowing in the wind with hair or snow flying in New York City. This image, like quite a few of his, are street captures with eyes on billboards facing opposing direction as the subject’s view, yet somehow ironically mirroring one another.
Pro Tip: Shooting street photography in the city often requires wandering around, finding streets or corners that have some sort of geometrical shapes already, whether via light or patterns in the city elements and waiting for the right subject to enter your frame. You might shoot 2 frames and move on, or post up and wait for however long it takes to find the shot where the movement of the streets lines up with the stillness of the buildings and concrete.
With Benskin’s image above, it has this sort of “decisive moment” effect; the man and woman’s cigarettes are held in identical delay between drags, their feet mirror this moment, lifted an inch from the concrete. I don’t have this feeling of really wanting to know where they are going, and their relationship to one another appears ambiguous, but I don’t even care in this case. The intense darkness the man’s coat holds on the left of the frame creates this illuminating light on his face, on to her, then leads your eyes to the brightness of the billboard ad. The giant hand in the background holds an eye open, with the eye looking directedly at you, the same size and in line with the couple’s heads. It has this geometrical zig zag about it that holds my attention where the emotion is left out.
Hugo Ribes is a french photographer, and I can’t tell much else about him since I can’t read French on his bio. This image starts out not very telling upon a quick stroll through his feed, but by looking a bit closer, it has this great depth of field and layers of a story that stand out from a typical “I shot some kids when they weren’t looking at me” sort of street candid. Nearly half the frame is filled with just the back’s of 3 boys heads, looking down towards kids playing ball. The kids in the distance blend in with the tiled wall figures so well, you almost don’t notice them.
Pro tip: It sometimes helps a semi-dull scene when doing street photography, to add an additional layer that draws the eyes in. Even though you don’t see the kids faces or expressions, they help add an extra element to the story. In this case, stepping back and including more of the surroundings.
David ‘Dee” Delgado is a photojournalist and instructor at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City. He is a part of a pretty epic group of photographers representing the Bronx and manages to be on the scene of late night fires in the Bronx with his camera before it even reaches the news. He also frequents protests with his film cameras, often times choosing to shoot for himself rather than on assignment, so he can focus on what he wants to shoot, like this image. A boy on a bus watching protestors in the South Bronx during riots following the death of Eric Gardner. You can’t see what the boy is seeing, but the caption offers you the opportunity to imagine what he must be seeing. Aside from the beautiful rain trickles created by the terrible fluorescent bus lighting, his expression shines through the glass.
Pro Tip: During events such as a protest or action on the street, try turning your back to the chaos and shooting what’s on the other side. You are guaranteed to get a view most of the other cameras did not capture.
Shayan Hathaway has a large body of portrait work, with both color and B&W of celebrities, musicians, and friends. I particularly like this one, because before even clicking on the image, I could tell it was of Questlove. Even if you didn’t already know the musician, it’s a unique take on what could have been a very predictable portrait. It’s likely this was one of those quick shoots the way portrait sittings of musicians tend to be, but rather than him looking directly at the camera, he’s caught gazing almost reluctantly to the hand grooming his hair. His dark hair is also perfectly highlighted against a black background, with a very subtle separation that frames his face well.
Pro Tip: If you are doing a studio lit portrait of a subject, keep shooting throughout the getting ready in between moments. You might capture not only an unposed expression but the mystery of elements outside the frame that tell a wider story or at least make you imagine one.
From my Migrantes project (1995-2006) Upon my arrival to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, I asked a man why he wants to come to the US. In response, he went to his home and brought out this coin. The economic opportunities in the US provide incentive to leave the economically depressed towns in Mexico. Sonora, Mexico 1995 “>
Without the caption, I still love this image. But with, it adds so much depth to the story. I do believe a photo should be strong enough to stand on its own, but often times in a documentary series such as this one, Migrantes Project (1996-2006) the text provides a background to the subject that you can’t help but feel an emotion towards, without even seeing a face. I like that the photographer chose not to include the man’s face or body, but instead captured the object that was the answer to his question, which answers it perfectly.
From my Migrantes project (1995-2006) Upon my arrival to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, I asked a man why he wants to come to the US. In response, he went to his home and brought out this coin. The economic opportunities in the US provide incentive to leave the economically depressed towns in Mexico. Sonora, Mexico 1995
Ebru Yildez is a portrait and music photographer. She shoots with film and digital, but no matter what the medium, her greatest distinction is how she can consistently create powerful and moody profiles by facing her subjects in unconventional ways to the light source, letting subjects become a part of the background, yet still maintain a very commanding presence. Her placement is always very unexpected, in ways that I would have never envisioned, but she somehow makes them work. She also says she “makes” photos rather than the verb “take” which makes me think she lays these leading lines out in her head before even bringing out the camera. She also almost always prefers B&W, even in scenes I would have imagined could only be executed in color; often times lit by only one light source.
Pro Tip: When planning a portrait shoot, map out ideas in your head beforehand and set the lights up. Then flip your ideas all around and place your subjects in a way you think would never work. You might surprise yourself with something totally unexpected and new. At least I’m going to try to do this now because we can never stop learning and creativing new ways to see.
📷 In a shelter a mother carried her daughter to bed and spoke about relationships. “As for what love is, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. He’ll kick your face in, then bring you flowers and chocolate. You call that love? I call it brainwashing.” Donate to Quanada at the link in my profile and help mothers find a safe space at their local shelter, away from the brainwashing. #iamunbeatable #livingwiththeenemy #quanada #domesticabuse #domesticviolence #domesticviolenceawareness #shelters #motherdaughter
It might not be fair to include Donna Ferrato in this list, but she has less than 10K followers so if you don’t know who she is, you should go find out right now. Ferrato is a veteran photojournalist who has been using B&W photography for decades to tell in-depth stories. This image, from a domestic violence story, makes you feel like you are viewing the mother’s soul on such an intimate level, that she is no longer a stranger. Ferrato’s purpose is not in creating artistically beautiful photographs, but in revealing social issues we so often only hear about but never see. No flashes, no posing her subjects. This image shot on digital or in color would degrade its message; just the grainy and raw authenticity of monochrome photography and a developed personal relationship with who she photographs.