Take to the streets for black & white magic
IF THERE’S ONE AREA OF photography that’s synonymous with black & white it is the arena of street and reportage. There’s obviously a lot of history behind this – when the very idea of taking candid pictures of people in public first became a recognised artform, colour photography was still in its infancy and not practical for using in the fast-paced ‘shoot and run’ arena inhabited by the likes of Henri CartierBresson, Weegee and Brassaï. As a result, any contemporary photographer who wants to tap into the history of street photography will do well to consider a monochrome approach.
This historical aesthetic extends to the more serious medium of reportage photography, whether as a documentary tool or much of the war photography produced in the latter part of the 20th century. Photographers who had to work ‘out in the field’ would favour black & white film for its ability to be pushed to high ISO ratings and the comparative ease with which it could be processed and printed even when the nearest lab might be hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.
A clutter-free vision
The modern digital photographer isn’t constrained by the technical limitations of film, so what’s the enduring allure of mono for the 21st century street shooter, beyond the desire to hark back to the past? That historical link to the pioneers of this style of photography shouldn’t be underestimated, but there’s certainly more to mono’s street appeal than simple nostalgia.
One of the greatest advantages that black & white has for street photographers is its ability to strip away all of the distracting colour that overwhelms the modern cityscape and present a vista that is paired down
to its bare bones of light, composition and moment – the holy triumvirate of street photography. Towns and cities are swamped by a riot of colour these days and modern clothing is often far more garish than that worn 50-60 years ago, but with a monochrome treatment this ceases to be an issue.
Look for line and light
While street photography can be best defined by candid images of people, like every area of photography it requires several elements to make a great shot.
Those decisive moments are fleeting and rely on a certain degree of luck, as well as a well-trained eye, but some good street shots can still present themselves even when the subjects refuse to play ball, and black & white can help out enormously here.
The graphical nature of mono suits the streets perfectly, where every line and change of tone becomes a tool with which to lead the viewer’s eye through the shot. And as the urban landscape abounds with these graphic elements it’s a mono match of sheer perfection.
Finally, the way that black & white emphasises the gulf between light and shade works perfectly in street scenes, so always stay critically aware of the light around you as it will be a powerful compositional tool.
An emphasis on graphical lines and light plus a paired-down aesthetic make monochrome perfect for street photography.