Sometimes, on those occasions when I’m viewing a terrific portfolio of black and white street photography by one of its many practitioners, I suddenly get the feeling that — yes! — B&W is the Only True Way.
When this happens, my aesthetic attitude towards photography suddenly flips so that black and white becomes “real photography” whereas anything with colour seems garish, tasteless, and maybe a bit too ordinary — like the real world.
What follows is an urge to rush out to buy a Leica Monochrome M or even one of those old-fashioned cameras you had to load with long strips of photosensitive material (you know the ones I mean). Film cameras! With Tri-X film.
“Eeee lad, you can’t beat a gritty, grainy photo taken with Tri-X, now can you?”
The voice in my head extolling the virtues of Tri-X has somehow taken on a working class Yorkshire accent, making me pause to reconsider my options. I start to wonder what on earth has possessed me to entertain even a passing thought that black and white film might, in 2017, be preferable to digital colour.
The fact is: I never shoot black and white. The pictures you see in this blog post were never intended to be black and white, they just ended up that way because they didn’t work in colour. In other words, my black and white photos are really failed colour photos. Making them monochrome (like those below) has rescued them from oblivion.
Why Do People Do It?
We see the world in colour and we have sophisticated tools that allow us to portray the world in colour with great accuracy — so why do so many street photographers still shoot in black and white?
For example, I was looking at the work of photographers in the BULB collective: BULB stands for (Bucharest Urban League of photographers for the Balkans). Their standard is impressive and I can honestly say I enjoyed looking at every image, even though 95% of their photos are in black and white. Only Niki Gleoudi presents a portfolio entirely in colour — and it’s her work to which I can relate most closely.
So why do Niki Gleoudi’s fellow members concentrate almost exclusively on black and white photography, rather than become inspired by her excellent colour compositions?
I think there are several reasons, the strongest of which is tradition. The long tradition of black and white photography has created an aesthetic (a way of looking at pictures) all of its own. It’s the habit of thought into which I flip when I view lots of very good black and white photos, like those of the BULB collective. I almost get the same religion — because it’s certainly very contagious — but then I wake up and return to colourful Earth.
Years ago, as a student, I travelled in Italy to study art and take photographs of the scenery and architecture (on black and white film). When I got back I developed and printed my shots of Florence, Venice and Rome, then framed and hung them alongside some prints I’d bought of paintings by Giorgione and Bellini. It occurred to me, even then, that the medium of photography was deliberately setting itself apart from painting by remaining black and white. How otherwise could it compete with the glory of Venetian colour?
“Back in the day” — in, say, the early sixteenth century — the Florentines were more than a little envious of the Venetian ability to use colour. The artists of Florence may have been masters of form but in their mastery of colour the Venetians — Giorgione, Bellini, Sebastiano del Piombo and colleagues — were incomparable. Only occasionally did the two camps merge, as when Sebastiano based his murals in the Borgherini Chapel on drawings by Michelangelo, adding colours that were deeper and more subtle than those you see on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
All the painters, from whatever school, used colour — but maybe the sea-going Venetians had better access to valuable colour pigments from the Orient. Or maybe the light was better in watery Venice than elsewhere in Italy. Whatever it was, the fact that so many Venetian artists were skilled colourists cannot have been accidental. Like the ongoing fetish for black and white photography it was a cultural phenomenon, with causes and effects.
One of the effects of seeing Venetian prints on my wall was to make me even more aware of the role that colour plays in composition. When you leave it out — or downplay it, as many painters do — composition becomes much easier. But you would have to be completely colour-blind to resist the seductive appeal of those rich fabrics, rendered so perfectly by the Venetians. Their colours create beautiful textures — and it is texture, along with colour, which is often lacking in black and white photography.
Typically, a black and white street photograph has deep blacks (that’s a must!), lots of murky shadow, plenty of white areas with little or no detail, and a cluster of shades that normally correspond to skin tones. All the subtlety gets crammed into these skin tones, drawing attention to faces, arms, legs and bare skin.
Once you drain the world of colour you remove some of its vitality. Nudes look more “arty” and less titillating in black and white. Surfaces — especially skin — appear less touchable, more remote, more suited to the ivory tower of the art gallery: that special place which is a mental concept as much as a physical one.
The Reinstatement of Colour
The first colour photographer to make a serious impact on the art world was William Eggleston who shot in black and white until around 1965. His photos of mundane objects and ordinary people in suburban Memphis, Tennessee and nearby states like Mississippi and Georgia had the power to change the prevailing aesthetic, albeit slowly. For example, “Creative Camera” magazine, founded in 1968, did not embrace colour until December 1984.
However, it’s not the art photographer who’s been the biggest counter-influence against the black and white aesthetic. It’s the travel photographer.
It’s impossible to look at the work of great travel photographers and say: “I wish they’d stuck to black and white.” What would Steve McCurry’s pictures look like if drained of colour? Indeed, what would images brought back from the far-flung corners of Africa, India, Pakistan, South America and Asia look like if they were all monochrome? Could we really bear to lose the vivid colouring of the clothes, headgear, ornaments and furnishings in which these images abound.
I could name dozens of travel photographers who demonstrate my point admirably. For example, recently I was looking at the work of Kevin Perry who travels to distant corners of the world, far from his native city Seattle, and brings back the message that the world is full of colour. I can’t imagine that anyone would wish him to photograph in black and white.
Years ago, when artists travelled south they were invariably astonished to discover a world of colour in the clear light of Africa (Paul Klee, August Macke) or the South Pacific (Paul Gauguin). It appears that our travel photographers do the same today.
So is black and white photography the product of our cloud-covered northern cities? Certainly the tradition has remained with us, despite pronouncements about the “death of black and white” made thirty years ago.
Personally, I’d hate to see it disappear altogether, but I’d also like see more street photographers making a bigger effort to get to grips with colour.
In my view, black and white street photographers are hiding in an ivory tower, setting themselves apart not only from the great painters of the past and present but also from the world of commerce and advertising. Surely it’s time to rejoin the real world?