Street Photography: Why Black and White?

I think the answer lies partly in history — but not totally.

First the historical perspective.  The fact is that street photography got off the ground before shooting in color was practical.  Henri Cartier-Bresson, et al, carried SLRs and rangefinders loaded with black and white roll film.  Would these pioneers in street photography have used color if it were available?  I contend that they would have used black and white or even converted to black and white in post processing for the same reason that we shoot in color with our digital SLRs and convert to black and white in our computers.

Allow me to present a premise:  Street photography carries a message — or it isn’t street photography.

And a corollary to that might be that color often detracts from or masks the message.  Here’s an example:
Budapest reflection-2

The message might be any of several things.  It may be the contrast between the ancient church and the modern hotel façade.  It could be the contrast between the tiny woman and the huge buildings.  Or, you may see something different (one of the beautiful aspects of street!).

At any rate, check out the same picture (as shot) in color.

Budapest reflection

It is cumbersome to do this in a blog post but try to follow me here.  When the color image is initially presented your eyes first land on the color play between the two buildings and then wander down to the woman.  On the other hand, the black and white version draws you first to the woman and you track her gaze up to the new/old dichotomy of the two buildings.

The woman is important — cover her with your hand and the image goes flat.  Her importance is diminished, almost lost, if the image is presented in color.

And so it goes with most good street photography.  So often color directs our minds into seeing the world as we experience it — the way it is — while losing the subtleties that make street photography the fun sport we love.

Do you agree?  I’d appreciate your comment.


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