Brief: Do some research in to contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.
- What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?
- Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism? (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)
- How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?
I was unable to find one single definition of the term ‘street photography’, it seems that it means slightly different things to different people but from my understanding street photography is imagery that captures an intricate story with many layers of meaning and depth; a young girl eating an ice-cream could become a portrait, an advert, an accompaniment to a news story but if the subject was perhaps unaware of the presence of the camera this would be more likely to capture the girls true self. That, in my understanding is the true definition of street photography, an image showing the subjects true selves, not hassled and pestered by cameras and not posing or guarding themselves from the photographer. Here is the photographic inspiration behind the above example. However, I don’t think that street photography necessarily has to have people in the frame, as long as the rest of the frame tells or shows part of a story (which is fairly difficult and probably has a fine line between street photography and documentary). Also I think that photographs where the subject’s are aware of the photographer aren’t automatically booted out of the category as long as the subjects are being true to themselves and showing off their true character – click here for an example of this (image by Dougie Wallace). Another argument over the definition of street photography is that a true street photography image should never be cropped and another being that a flash gun should never be used.
Early street photography was taken in black and white because there was no other technology available, colour film was not yet invented and even when it had been released for general sale it was very slow to emerge in street photography because colour film needed a shorter shutter speed to capture frozen movement, which was not possible until the development of the Leica camera, and also because good street photography was always seen to have its place in the black and white genre.
In a blog post on the use of black and white vs colour in street photography Eric Kim suggested that black and white photographs are perhaps more interesting because we do not see the world around us in this format therefore there is more thought and processing involved for the viewer and therefore more personal engagement. On the same blog post there is a quote from well known street photographer Ted Grant that I felt really summed up the popular use of black and white by himself and his contemporaries –
When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls! – Ted Grant
I think the logic behind this statement is that a black and white portrait takes away any emphasis from the coloured statements of a persons attire (unless it is heavily patterned or in bold blocks) and points only to their facial features, their expression, their skin colour (in tone of course) and perhaps indeed the soul of the subject in question. We are able to look deeper because there is less to distract us from what the subject is exhibiting (or trying to hide).
I looked in to the work of the photographers listed in the brief of this exercise and here are my notes as follows –
Helen Levitt : Helen Levitt was an American street photographer and a pioneer of colour photography. Levitt’s early work in the 1930-40s was candid street photography in black and white (see examples here) and I find them really charming and very evocative. The children playing in the street using chalks and leaning on each other both physically and emotionally is very moving. The black and white makes the photos look both of their time and it also enhances the sense of poverty in the streets. There is enough of a story or a suggestion of one in each image to make it very intriguing and to evoke a response from the viewer – i find myself smiling broadly at the image of the mother with her head deep in the pram of a giggling baby. In 1959-60 Levitt received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation to continue to explore her familiar territory but to change to colour as apposed to black and white film. In 1970 a burglar broke in to her apartment and stole most of her colour work so most of the photos from that period we may never see. However, Levitt continued to work in colour until the early 1990s when she reverted back to black and white film. Click here for some examples of Levitt’s colour street photography. I find Levitt’s colour work different than her black and white but it still clearly has her style, the imagery is still evocative and very close but I feel there is an added hint of humour. There is more information in the frame but I think that Levitt adjusted well to the colour format and she uses the additional information to add to the story and not to detract from the subject. There might be less individual ‘soul’ to most of the colour images but there is more presence and collective soul than in her black and white work prior. I enjoyed her photograph of an elderly couple crossing the road, hunched and leaning heavily on walking sticks, busy traffic and fast paced city life still continuing to buzz around their nearly immobile forms.
Joel Meyerowitz : Joel Meyerowitz is an American street photographer who was one of the earliest advocates of colour photography in the mid 1960’s. According to the biography on his official web page Meyerowitz was ‘instrumental in changing the attitude towards the use of colour photography from one of resistance to nearly universal acceptance’. In an interview with The Guardian Meyerowitz describes his thought process when he first decided to shoot in colour –
“The world was in colour. It was just so obvious to me. I had no idea people were snobbish about colour. To me, black and white just seemed back there, historical.” -Joel Meyerowitz, interviewed for The Guardian
And in an interview for AmericanSuberbx Meyerowitz explains in further detail his decision to use colour film –
“I saw in the 35mm color a kind of quality of description that 35mm black and white didn’t have. Something about the way Kodachrome II described things was so cohesive, grainless, smooth, creamy. The color itself added this extra dimension of description. A red coat in yellow sunlight and blue shadows didn’t come out medium gray, it came out exciting and stimulating. I thought, ‘I want to describe that in my photographs too.'” – Joel Meyerowitz for AmericanSuburbx
So to sum up, I think that Meyerowitz decided to shoot in colour because he found that he could not express his view of the world fully in black and white, the world he saw around him was interesting because of the extra dimension provided by colour and so therefore he needed colour to make the statements, to tell the stories and to convey the feelings and experiences that he wanted to tell and to portray.
My favourite three images that show the brilliant use of colour in street photography by Joel Meyerowitz are as follows:
Camel Coats, NYC, 1975 – There is a subtle use of colour, not bold or bright or flashy. Two thirds of the frame could be monochrome with its shadowy black edges and the snow white plume of smoke – there is just a small triangle of blue sky ahead and the fairly unsaturated camel coloured coats of the subjects and their fellow curb walkers. Aesthetically I love this image, it is very pleasing to view and there is something mysterious about it. In this case just enough colour was used so as to give information needed for the picture to be intriguing but not too much as to throw the scene in to chaos. There is no doubt that the image wouldn’t have worked the same way and as effectively in black and white as it does in colour.
Land, Provincetown, 1976 – In this photograph the pastels of the sky, the reflections of the sunset on the cars and the soft neons of the building’s lights create a strong sense of a calm, warm, tranquil dusk. Without colour this notalgia evoking scene would most certainly take on a different meaning.
The Elements, Air/Water #5, 2007 – The shimmering blue water in this image would not work in black and white for certain – the blue is what makes the squiggly lines appear as dancing light on a pool, without the colour the image would become far more obscure and the pattern and differing tones are not strong enough for the black and white to work well.
Paul Graham : Paul Graham is an English fine-art and documentary photographer. At the beginning of the 1980’s Graham was among the first photographers to use colour film in the documentary genre. According to the Paul Graham Archive online his series ‘A1 -The Great North Road’ had a ‘transformative effect on the black and white tradition that dominated British photography at that point’ and his other colour works of the 1980’s were ‘pivitol in reinvigorating and expanding this area of photographic practise, by both broadening it’s visual language, and questioning how such photography might operate.’ Graham was determined to break through the popular black and white street photography style of the time and he was inspired to do so by American colour photographers Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. He set out to photograph the world and people around him in colour and he sought to avoid romanticizing and to aim to capture the ordinary; he wanted to expose the things that are so often overlooked. In an interview with the BBC Graham said that his work is about an ‘ongoing moment’ which is in stark contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s concept ‘the Decisive Moment’ and Graham therefore was one of the first photographers to make the shift away from surrealism.
Joel Sternfeld : Joel Sternfeld was born in America in 1944 and was an early advocate of the use of colour in street photography. His work ‘American Prospects’ was what placed him on the map and he produced it during a time when the use of colour in street photography was still very controversial. When shooting ‘American Prospects’ Sternfeld travelled around America by car for three years and he shot all the images on a large format camera with exclusively colour film. In an interview for Faded & Blurred online Sternfeld comments on his use of colour:
“Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world. Color is the real world. The job of the color photographer is to provide some level of abstraction that can take the image out of the daily.” -Joel Sternfeld
I suddenly came to the realisation when reading the Faded & Blurred article on Joel Sternfeld that there is a difference between a standard colour snapshot and a work of art that uses colour as an extra element and not just as something which happens to be there. A clever colour photograph may well use colour as a psychological tool as well as to highlight a subject or the links between subjects. For example, this image from ‘American Prospects’ where the pumpkins and the fire both present as the same shade of vibrant orange and yet they are entirely different in what they represent -a lazy, chilled pumpkin stall, natural and beautiful vs a raging fire, dangerous and unpredictable. There is something very intriguing and aesthetically pleasing about the use of orange for both of these important aspects within the frame, against the blueish grey of the accompanying scene.
Martin Parr : Martin Parr is an English documentary and street photographer who switched permanently to colour film in 1982. Parr’s work is focused on the social classes of England and he uses a distinct style with use of bold saturated colour and intimate angles to produce somewhat humorous and unusual but also excruciatingly honest imagery. Lots of Parr’s observations use irony to comment on British-ness or American values such as this image which was taken on a beach in Florida, from his photo book titled ‘Common Sense’ in which the subject wears an American flag as pants or this image taken in 1977 at West Bay England in which a British lady wears socks and sandals on the beach. Parr was inspired to switch to colour photography by US colour photography pioneers Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. When I was researching Parr’s early colour photography career I found an interview with Popular Photography in which Parr talks about the understated European photographers who’s colour work wasn’t taken seriously. When we talk about the pioneers of colour photograph, US names such as Eggleston and Meyerowitz pop up but Parr argues that European photographers such as Keld Helmer-Peterson and Ed Van Der Elsken were equally as important in the shift from black and white to colour in documentary and street photography as well as other genres, with Helmer Peterson publishing what might have been the very first colour photo book in Europe (1948) which consisted of a set of 122 images that he proclaimed would only work in colour. In 2007 Parr set up an exhibit at the Hasted Hunt gallery in New York called ‘Colour before Colour’, it’s primary purpose to show case and educate Americans about the lesser known European pioneers of colour photography. The exhibition consisted of work by Keld Helmer-Petersen, Luigi Ghirri, Ed van der Elsken, Carlos Perez Siquier, John Hinde, and Peter Mitchell. (See my Pinterest board for a sample of their works). I really enjoyed the work of Ed van der Elsken in particular, his colour works are very intriguing and although not as satirical as Parr’s they share the same deeper meanings and they have their share of wit. For example this image where a couple in reserved bathing suits smile for the camera, probably unaware of the fully naked couple behind them who are sharing the frame! An older, larger and much whiter couple in contrast to a very fit, tanned and naked couple. The two men have similar beards and the women could be the same women at different life stages. I find the photograph really fun to view and also really intriguing to study, each time I look at it I find new details within it.
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