“A good photograph, like a good poem, is a self contained little universe inexhaustible to scrutiny”. Rebecca Norris Webb, photographer
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This exercise required me to visit a street that particularly interests me and to shoot 30 colour and 30 black & white images in a street photography style. Street photography is a style that I enjoy both looking at and participating in, and I will explore some of this in my Learning Log. Before going out to complete the shoot I carried out some research into the style through reading and looking at other photographers’ work. Again I will be commenting on this in my Learning Log.
There are not many streets near me in North Pembrokeshire so I selected High Street and Bridge Street in Haverfordwest, the County town of Pembrokeshire, as I knew that these were likely to have reasonable numbers of people and things going on to provide suitable subjects. In common with other town centres there is a high proportion of empty shops and dead businesses in Haverfordwest resulting in a run-down atmosphere so I decided to include this element as a mini-theme throughout the shoot.
I approached this shoot with a mix of excitement and trepidation. It felt good to be going out with the camera instead of poring over books and internet websites and I felt the tingle of anticipation as to what life might give me in the way of subjects, but this was countered by the knowledge that I was intending to be publicly prying into the private lives of people which might lead to their discomfort or even hostility. Whereas we do not have legislation preventing the photographing of people in public places without their knowledge in the UK as there is in France and elsewhere, some people are understandably wary of the motives of someone pointing a camera at them without asking. To gain their approval / consent would risk losing the spontaneity of ‘the moment’, and I would miss a great deal by engaging in conversation with all and sundry.
I overcame this to some extent by explicitly sharing my time between photographing buildings, birds, shop windows and general street views as well as people so that anyone who observed me would be aware that I was a generalist and not set on intrusion. I used two camera bodies, one with a 100-400mm telephoto lens and the other with a standard 24-70mm zoom lens so that I could photograph both overtly and covertly, although it did somewhat draw attention to me and led to the odd ‘paparazzi’ comment! I also used the ploy of photographing people through their reflections in mirrors and shop windows. I received no adverse comments or criticism and it did lead to a few interesting and connecting conversations with people who were interested in what I was shooting and why.
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The principal purpose of this exercise, as well as exploring the various styles and genres that comprise street photography, is to look at the different effects and impacts of colour and black & white reproduction on the final image. I have, therefore, chosen to reproduce below both colour and black & white versions of the same image so that the two can be compared directly. Under each pair of images I have included some of my own observations and critiques on both the image as an entity and also on the two different formats.
The photographs that I took during this shoot comprise a range of subjects both with and without the inclusion of people. In order to avoid the label of documentary, I looked out for subjects of interest where the juxtaposition of elements within the frame created a tension or curiosity, or where the subject suggested a wider story. I also wanted to set the human players within the context of the bigger stage in which they appeared by including shots of the surrounding streetscape and its other inhabitants. I hope therefore that a wider overall impression of the streets will be gained from this collection of images than if I had just focussed on the shopping public.
I have chosen to organise the images in such a way that the sense of emptiness and disuse is established first and then gradually the life within the area is revealed and explored. I have possibly erred by giving the images titles but I felt it might be helpful to establish some sort of a context, however slight, for the viewer to engage with as well as the image.
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What an interesting and enjoyable exercise this was! I was fascinated to see how the ideas that I had explored on the streets would actually appear as colour images and how they were transformed by conversion to black & white. The 50 pairs of images above were selected after much consideration from a larger collection of images taken on the day. Many of the images could be rejected easily as being short on interest or impact or for being too similar to others already selected. Some could have equally been added to this final selection, but I believed that they would not have significantly added to the story and my time was limited.
Whereas my strong inner critic recognises that few, if any, of these images meet the criteria for a good photograph suggested by Rebecca Norris Webb in her quote at the top of this piece, I believe that some have merit. They mean something to me and I can view them and review them with pleasure. However, I am painfully aware that others might not see them in this way and that few if any would merit the description of being contemporary in style or context or of displaying a ‘personal voice’. As a result I feel some trepidation about any comments that my tutor might make, although I am open to constructive criticism and the lessons that I might learn.
Until the mid 20th Century, black & white format was the standard and, although amateur photographers rapidly took to the colour format for their shots of family and holidays, black and white (monochrome) remained the format of choice for ‘art’ photographers. Black & white images therefore have entered the public consciousness as being ‘art’ photographs, demanding of greater contemplation and carrying more weight than their colour counterparts. As ‘art’ photographers have increasingly espoused colour in their work in recent years, this distinction is no longer valid (if it ever was!) and galleries are now full of colour as well as monochrome.
As well as having the cachet of being more ‘serious’ and arty, black & white images undoubtedly stir different responses / reactions amongst viewers than colour images. They tend to create a distance and impassivity between the image and the viewer that is only overcome, if at all, by the impact of the subject. The connection created between the viewer and the image by, for instance, the eyes or a smile in a portrait or the sense of wildness and beauty in a landscape, may well reduce the sense of distance and lack of emotion generated in the viewer. Equally, it may be that the high contrast and sometimes stark and robust appearance of images in the B&W format is what gives them their appeal and power. An important aspect of B&W images is that they can draw the attention of viewers to the composition and the detail within the frame without the distraction of colours. However, the tendency amongst many to view images in black & white as being serious and requiring detailed and informed consideration can get in the way of establishing a connection and an emotional response with monochrome photographs.
Colour images on the other hand often have an instant warmth, a soft appeal and familiarity, which draws the viewer in and makes them feel ‘safe’ irrespective of the subject matter. Colour imparts emotion and connection, a sensuality. In some images it is the very use of colour that imparts the photographer’s reason for taking the shot. In these instances, the role of colour in the image could be as a highlight, as a telling juxtaposition or contrast, as an atmospheric wash, as a means of bringing harmony and continuity to an image or as a means of fragmenting it into its constant parts. Colour is generally the format of choice for images of families and friends, children and pets, homes and possessions, holidays and landscapes. In much contemporary ‘art’ photography a lack of tonality and variation in the use of colour adds a blandness that some find unappealing, whereas in others, such as in the later work of Alex Webb for example, bright colours are used as a means of expressing the emotion imparted by exotic locations.
As a young photographer, Webb, in common with many street photographers, followed in the footsteps of Cartier-Bresson, Friedlander, Kertesz and Frank using the black & white format exclusively, believing that colour was ‘crass and commercial’. However, in the mid-1970’s whilst working in the Caribbean and Mexico he realised that something of what drew him to photograph in these areas was missing from his photographs – ‘that sense of the searing light and intense colours of these worlds…… places where colour seemed an integral part of the culture and life’. As a result, he ‘stumbled upon a way of working in vibrant, saturated colour’. From this, and the experiences and practices of many photographers whose work I have encountered in books, websites and galleries, it is clear that the choice of colour or black & white format is one of many available to the photographer when he / she is deciding on the art and impact that they want to create. Indeed, it is one of the most fundamental of choices as the impact of the choice on the viewer and on his / her response / reaction to the image is so powerful.
As to which format I prefer in my selection of images from my street shoot, this seems like a trick question as it very much depends on what is in the photograph. Those images that are stark, angular and / or almost monochromatic already probably work better in black & white, as do some images which have simple and uncluttered subject matter. There are some of the above images that work better for me in colour such as the shots of children, e.g. 49 Eyes and 47 Flight, general shots of people e.g. Family Man and 43 A Few Essentials and where colour is an important element of the image, e.g. 23 Red Windmill, 42 Dinosaur Juice, 22 Norm and 13 Sweetmeat. Images where the black & white format works better for me include 2 Lone Pigeon, 3 Tree, 6 The Watcher and 12 Lost Smile. Other images work equally in either format although the impact and ‘message’ might well be different and are likely to effect the viewer differently.
Further discussion of thoughts arising from this Exercise can be found on my Learning Log.
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On Street Photography and the Poetic Image Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb Aperture Books ISBN 978-1-59711-257-4
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