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"A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME"
Most street photographers have a strong predilection for black and white photography. I count myself among this not so silent majority. There are several reasons for this dominant monochromatic preference
among street photographers. One exceedingly powerful reason, is tradition. Traditionally, street photography has been a black and white stronghold. Street photography has always been seen through the eyes and mental vision of photographers, who saw the world on the streets devoid of color. This is probably because the roots of street photography took hold long before color photography became a viable entity. Thereafter, street photographers merely continued what was assumed to be in the Street Photography World, as the norm. The impetus to change simply wasn't there, and inertia ruled.
History and tradition are heavy cudgels, to be wielded with great fanfare and self-righteousness! I am not denigrating the black and white tradition here with my quasi-sarcasm (I'm just trying to be funny), for I love black and white photography, much more than its polychromatic sister.
Photo by Genghis (1962)
There is something about the dulcet varied tones of a black and white photograph, that I find somehow more substantial in the way that it speaks visually compared to color. There is a solidity of relative subject matter whithin a photograph, that is dependent on the way that the blacks, grays and whites of compositional elements interact, that lends it a magic that most color pictures lack. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and the eye and mind of this photographer, deem black and white to be the King, Queen and Ace of the street photography card deck. Another reason that I believe street photographers prefer black and white, is because black and white self-processing was simply more accessible (not to mention more inexpensive than color developing, once color came along) to street photographers as they came up. I came up in the 1960s, when I began my street photography. My coming up was replete with the proverbial "darkroom in the kitchen," where I processed pictures like "Guppies" that I took in New York's Central Park in 1962. For those tech nerds among you, it was taken with a Nikon F (I still have this camera) with a 50mm f/2 Nikkor. The film was Kodak Tri-x Pan, developed at 1000 ASA with UFG 1000 developer, printed on Kodabromide grade 4 paper. As I recall it, I did a fair amount of dodging and burning with this print.
The enlarger was a little Durst model with a Schneider lens. I currently have a terrific top-of-the-line Omega point light source enlarger, which I haven't used since I went digital 7 years ago---but that's another story for another time.
I later put my darkroom skills to good use as a young professional just to pay the rent, having a job at a professional lab in New York City named Edstan Studios in the early 1970s ("Ed" and "Stan" were the owners). My job was as a black and white print technician, in which I processed high end prints for salons, TV stations like NBC and ABC, magazines like the TV Guide, and other photographers who simply lacked the skills or ambition to develop their own prints. You'd be surprised at the number of street photographers back then, who didn't know Dektol from hypo.
Predominant in street photography today, are the photographers who overwhelmingly prefer black and white over color, because of their experience in making their own prints
These street photographers who did their own print developing came to ultimately appreciate the nuances of the black and white photograph better, from their darkroom experience. By the way, I make no distinction between the skills needed for wet darkroom developing and digital darkroom developing. One must understand and use the same underlying principles of processing a black and white image, whether it emerged from the film plane or digital sensor. Technologies may change, but underlying principles and technques don't.
Yet, there is a place for color in street photography. There are instances due to the presence of a particular color within the composition, that dictates that it must be done in color. The emergence of digital photography, has made this choice between color or black and white in the end game photo, very easy. In film photography, it isn't quite as easy to convert to black and white, if color film has been loaded. Of course, it's not impossible. One simply has to scan the image, and convert to black and white with either an in-camera conversion if it's available with that particular back, or with a processing software like Photoshop. Of course, if the photographer loaded his Leica or Nikon film back with black and white, then it's not possible to convert to color in Photoshop. What you see in the body, is what ya get later when ya have black and white film loaded.
In digital photography, the digital image begins in color, so one has the choice of either keeping it polychromatic, or converting to black and white. Today, I shoot all of my street photography digitally, inspite of my extensive experience in wet black and white darkroom work. I have three old Nikon D1x backs, and shoot exclusively with a 20mm f/4 Nikkor. This is a wonderful little pancake lens (it's only about an inch and half deep) that was made for one year only, back in 1978. There are certain compositions, that not just strongly dictate, but actually demand that it be done in color.
Such a photograph is "Rose Matter." I came across this subject as I was walking down 8th Street in Greenwich Village in New York. I knew immediately, that her red shirt would be the dominating element of the photograph, echoed by its doppelganger reflection in the window behind the subject. I can tell you for sure that if her shirt had been blue or white, that I'd have done this photograph in black and white---which is my default preference unless otherwise indicated by an outstanding color element.
I also knew that this had to be a vertical composition emphasizing the vertical line of her body, as she sat relaxed on this window ledge. The elegant and graceful line of her flexed leg with bent knee, would enhance this composition. I always mentally construct a composition, before getting to my shooting position. I wanted a vertical image, with the subject dominating the center-left of the image, with the approaching pedestrian included on the right, for interest and counterpoint. I gauged from my mentally visualized composition, that I'd have to be about 6 feet away from the subject to achieve the composition I wanted. I therefore preset focus using the distance scale of the focusing ring of my lens, to 6 feet as I was walking to my "X marks the spot" shooting position.
I generally keep my distance scale set to 5 feet as I amble on streets, so I can quickly reset the focusing ring to anywhere from 3 to 15 feet as needed, which is my usual shooting range.
I already had exposure set, as I have a habit of constantly checking exposure as I walk. I hit my mark 6 feet from the subject, framed the composition and made the exposure.
One thing I like to do frequently, is to reduce saturation in post-processing to simulate a more natural-looking image, that resembles old Kodachrome. Since I came up shooting Kodachrome, this is the look I prefer. There's nothing I have more disdain for, than the oversaturation of color that digital shooters (along with oversharpening, another pet peeve) seem prone to.
Color can add wonderful enjoyment in a photograph, such as you see in "Rose Matter." There are indeed, certain street pictures, that call out to you in color. In those instances, only color will do. Later.