Why is Street Photography Dominated by Black and White?

world dominations
photo credit: hunterseakerhk

When I think about street photography, I see black and white. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned to think this way, or maybe there’s some other driving force here. Regardless, I hadn’t really thought about it or questioned it until Rachel Fus struck up a conversation on Twitter (@fusphoto) about the recent street photography post:

fusphoto: 15 photos from @EpicEdits’ Flickr Challenge https://tinyurl.com/2afs7uc Y r only 3 of these color? #photo

epicedits: @fusphoto Most are b/w because most of the submissions were b/w. Not surprising given the topic.

fusphoto: @epicedits street photography? how so?

epicedits: @fusphoto You don’t think street photography is typically dominated by b/w? Less so w/digital, but I still see more b/w street pics.

fusphoto: @epicedits this is true but y? the “streets” are infused with color yet people don’t use it. the merry-go-round for instance. WTF?

epicedits: @fusphoto Never really thought about the why of it… I have my ideas, but maybe I’ll post a blog discussion this week to hear from others.

And so here we are. Rachel brings up a good point and it really got me thinking. The streets are full of color, yet most street photos are either captured or published in black and white. WTF indeed!

Now, nobody’s saying that street photos can’t be in color, or even that the best ones are only in black and white. There are tons of examples out there that break the “rules” in this arena. But I have two thoughts on why street photography is closely coupled with black and white images.

1. THE MASTERS HAVE BRAINWASHED US

brainwash NOW!
photo credit: ranjit

Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden, Robert Frank, and countless others have taught us that street photography is black and white. William Eggleston would be a strong exception to the rule, but a lot of the “old masters” shot in black and white. Why? Probably out of convenience more than anything, though I’m sure a few of them have always loved the black and white end of things.

At any rate, a lot of the recognizable masterpieces in street photography are black and white images. If you see enough of that, your brain starts to make the connection… street photography = black and white. So I’m going to argue that we’ve been brainwashed by the masters.

2. COLOR IS A DISTRACTION

For my second reason why street photography works better in black and white, I’m going to get all “deep” and stuff.

what you are worrying about right now is a distraction from what's really important in your life
photo credit: Torley

Color is an element of every photo. Just like framing, composition, subject matter, lighting, exposure, etc. But color is one of those elements that can essentially be turned off. Street scenes can be very busy with lots of distracting elements as is, and color will often add a level of complexity that leads to sensory overload in an image. Background elements can be a major distraction: the bright green car, the guy in the red shirt, the neon sign, and so on. My thought is that if the color isn’t adding something important to the image, it doesn’t need to be there (and it might even hurt having it there).

I’m not going to get much “deeper” than that… you get the point. But don’t be too quick to attack — these are just my own opinions and observations on the matter.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

Do you agree that street photography is dominated by black and white? Why or why not? Is this changing as we go further into the digital age of photography? I’d love to hear some thoughts on the topic.