Part 1 – Black and White v. Colour in Street Photography

The course materials suggested researching some street photographers including Helen Levitt and some of her images are shown below. I think that the first two photographs suit the black and white/colour format choice: the image to the left repeats the same green in 3 separate areas of the frame and this really adds impact to the composition. In the second image, the choice of black and white accentuates the shape of the two pairs of legs and allows the viewer to concentrate on the visual curves and form of the entwining legs rather than being distracted by colour.

The photograph below from Helen Levitt is one which I feel might have been more successful if it had been shot in colour; the boy’s face appearing out of a sea of clashing colourful comics would have made him stand out from the background and given the  photograph more impact:-

Helen Levitt - Hide and Seek

In addition to the suggested photographers, I also reviewed images from the popular ‘Street Photography Now’ book by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren. The following photographs are my particular favourites from the book. I’ve included some comments on how I think that the choice of colour or black and white, has added to the overall impact of the image.

Above left:- Macief Dakowicz – Pink Hat, Cardiff, 2006
Above right top:- Matt Stuart – Oxford Street, London, 2004
Above right bottom:- Melanie Einzig – First Avenue, New York City, 2004

Each of these images above is really strong because of the use of colour which has for each highlighted the individuality of the characters depicted. Matt Stuart’s photograph of his ageing subject shading her eyes from the low sun, comes to life because of the repetition of the colour red throughout the image – in her coat, her nails and in the bus. The feminine pink and purple of the ‘Pink Hat’ character in Macief Dakowicz’s image, renders it comical because the colours are at odds with the burly frame and the ungainly pose.  The crocheted character stands out because of his uniformly lemon outfit, which is actually quite regal!

The two images below from Katy Grannan’s ‘Boulevard’ series shot in Los Angeles, California, USA 2008-10, are striking with their stark white backgrounds rendering the characters unequivocally the main subjects; no distracting background or props providing any additional narrative. Whilst I feel that the colour has added some interesting detail especially with the harsh pink lipstick and the ginger tufty sides of the man’s beard, shooting them in black and white could also have been used to accentuate the character and the lines of the ageing, sad-looking Marilyn, and add to the texture of the baseball hat-toting character’s hairy head and body. Using colour for the subjects but blanching out the background gives the images a contemporary ‘minimalist’ feel.

The image below, entitled simply ‘London, 2003’ from the British Street Photographer David Gibson is particularly clever in it’s use of black and white. An obviously colourful object, the Rubik’s cube has been photographed here deliberately in monotone shades so that it mimics the subject’s striking diamond-patterned tie. The man’s walking stick also subtly mirrors the railings and adds to the rhythm of the image as you read it from left to right. Removing the man’s head from the composition also serves to focus on these elements. Gibson wants us to notice how the shapes and patterns are echoed throughout the image without being distracted by colour.

David Gibson - London, 2003

The image below from Raghu Rai – ‘Rickshawman taking a nap in Jama Masjid Market, Delhi, 2005’, is possibly my favourite street photography shot from the book. There are so many creative and clever street photography techniques within the frame that appeal to me beyond it’s obvious lure of it being shot in colourful India. The juxtaposition of the peacefully sleeping, almost ‘giant’ rickshaw man in the foreground against the hustle and bustle backdrop of the blurred passers by behind him with the third layer of the image, the chaotically stocked tyre shop, is so inspired. The image could have been equally as successful in black and white but this doesn’t seem appropriate for a photograph in one of the most colourful countries in the world.

Raghu Rai - Rickshawman taking a nap in Jama Masjid Market, Delhi, 2005


Howarth S., McLaren S. (2011). Street Photography Now’. 

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