Black and White tugs at everyone differently, but there is work that truly tugs at the hearts of everyone. It has the power to create interest from chaos, emphasizing emotion over color noise, and tone over hue. Just look at the trends for street photography and it is not hard to see a general preference to go monochrome over color. #monochrome and #bw commonly go hand in hand with street photography posts.
But why has black and white photography taken such a hold over the street photography genre? Is it as simple as ‘because that is what everyone else is doing?’ or is there more to it? One thing is for sure: even some of the genre’s most popular photographers stick to it!
Inspired By Legends & Visual Simplicity
“I think initially (years back) I was attracted by the fact I could try and emulate the work of past masters. I grew up in France and remember seeing posters with photos by Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier Bresson,” Nicholas Goodden, well-known street photographer and blogger at Urban Photography Blog, noted. “I thought their work was beautiful so automatically when I started photography I had, like many, an affinity for monochrome.” Indeed, Mr. Goodden shoots both in color and in black and white–but he really is smitten for the latter.
In fact, many of these photographers reference a strong influence by street photography legends. Rinzi Ruiz, a champion of black and white street photography stated, “[In 2010] Street Photography came to my attention and the black and white masters of photography such as Roy de Carava, Elliot Erwitt, Ray K Metzker and Henri Cartier Bresson were some of the first photographs I was inspired by and learned a lot from.”
But the inspiration angle really only covered a part of the story for these photographers. Famed black and white street photographer Martin Waltz said a big reason he turned to black and white was to visually simplify his work. “Photography is the art of reduction.” Mr. Waltz said, “A painter adds things to frame. A photographer reduces elements.” Mr. Waltz believes that Black and White is a great way to reduce the visual complexity of an image. To that end, he believes that colors in urban life are often clutter and distract rather than add to an image.
Creating Art from a Chaotic World
It is easy enough to apply a black and white preset to a color image and think you are done. But just as with color processing, true black and white art is massaged into the perfect tones of black, grey and white.
“[I] ask myself what do I want this image to convey, what tone suits it and lastly, what looks best.” explained Lester Jones, a director, black and white street photographer, and the man behind the blog I Dig Your Sole Man. Considering that his work is embodied by fashion, editorials and street, this simply makes sense.
Indeed, others agree on being careful with processing. Mr. Goodden relates his experience in fine tuning his style. “I guess as a beginner I would get a little trigger happy with the contrast slider, “ noted Mr. Goodden. His experiences have helped him to appreciate the subtle variations in tone that come with black and white photography.
“I have always had a thing for contrast and I still have.” Says Mr. Waltz, who explains how it helped him better understand and appreciate the mid tones. This led him to a much more subtle way of processing, where heavy handed image editing was phased out in favor of a more incremental, tactical approach.
For Mr. Ruiz, it all starts with seeing light — and that it means a lot to his personal style of art. “Light was a big factor in what made my black and white photographs evolve over time, “ describes Ruiz. “I didn’t quite know how to see the light at first but once it clicked, I studied it and shot for about a year practicing and finding my way.”
Each of these notable black and white street photographers has had an evolution in their style. This was driven not by popular trends or opinions, but by their own personal tastes and preferences. For each of them, finding that unique personal formula was a key to their black and white work getting noticed.
Getting Better Isn’t Black and White
“I have learned to do my thing and not try to please others. If you do your thing in photography chances are others will like it too,” said Mr. Goodden. His focus was on being true to his vision and not paying heed to the opinions of colleagues and pundits. This is a sentiment often spoken, but not often headed in photography–and just as with color imagery, it applies to black and white.
Mr. Waltz shares Henri Cartier Bresson’s sentiment that all things are a matter of luck. “I think my failure rate is about 95%, which means 95% of my shots are crap,” Mr. Waltz bluntly puts it as he describes learning to accept failure in order to create quality images, “Yet I need to shoot the crap to get halfway acceptable 5%.” Shooting the ‘crap’, as Mr Waltz puts it, is essential to being able to see a good black and white image when you take one. Many photographers focus on their best images, but a trick to growing is being able to see your bad images and know what is wrong with them. This will help to improve street vision, and knowing a good scene from a bad one without ever taking the shot.
Despite this, it is also essential to keep an open mind, being adaptive to situations, and constantly looking for all good moments — not just the ones pre-visualized before heading out,
“The more I shoot the more I feel that being fluid and receptive is key,” Mr. Jones explained, “Sometimes you may have an idea of what you want, but I think the most rewarding street work can be unplanned and completely off the cuff.”
Black and White photography has a magic all its own. It has the ability to create strong focus and stir up emotions. Each of these photographers, while displaying varying styles and preferences, all found their inspiration and growth within common veins.
Black and white still has a place in photography, because it’s hard to see the message through the tangle of this world’s bright colors. Its popularity in street photography could be attributed to that fact – that in the jumble of busy city streets focusing on the light, and removing the color, brings clarity to our modern chaos.