Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.
- What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?
- Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?
- How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?
Make some notes in your learning Log
It is a really challenging question to consider the difference that colour makes to a field that has a deep and long established history on black and white. I read Scott’s (1988) excellent book Street Photography fro Atget to Cartier Breton. In his description of how street photography developed as artists moved out of their studios and onto the streets, in part as developing technology allowed this transition he summed up the rationale for why black and white images were so much part of the genre of street photography.
‘Colour is often taxed for being preoccupied with appearances, with distractive superficialising glamour; while black and white for its part, has all the gravity of a perceptual asceticism, which by dint of self denial is able to reveal and intepret underlying relationships.’ pp21-22
This statement far more eloquently than I provides a rationale for making images in black and white. It is interesting therefore that a number of photographers chose to buck what at one point was the common trend. The course matures make specific reference to Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr all of whom have aeration for their use of colour. there are others such as Nan Goldin and William Klein who could be added to the canon of artists who chose to work against the prevailing orthodoxy of black and white and chose to work in colour. In many respects these artists laid a foundation of acceptability for other to use colour and a survey of more recent work such as Street Photography Now reveals that Coloues is the main medium.
In considering artists that paved the way for this shift I am am real fan of the work of British photographer John Bulmer. As a child in the 1970’s I have many recollections of spending Sunday evening thumbing through the Sunday Times colour supplement. In an era of photo essays it was documentary photographers such as Bulmer who’s work, often in colour could be found. Perhaps in part through nostalgia, but more importantly through the quality of his colour work, I find his use of colours offers greater insight into the worlds (many of which were disappearing) afforded by the colour images he made.
There is still a very distinct gritty and indeed grainy style to the work but colour locates it in a particular time and affords the viewer more information. I was struck by Boothroyd’s (2015) suggestion that reportage also puts the viewer in the place the photographer:
‘as though one is experiencing the story for ones self’ pp31
There is an intimacy in strong reportage that colour directly contributes to in my limited view. Bummer does this with his colour work and there is a strange sense when looking at some of his cooler work because the subject may no longer exist, as in the image below where in many cases neither pit, miners in the sense of their ponies have long since been consigned to history.
Although Bulmer is often associated with pictures of the north of England his work in Belfast and Norther Ireland in the high of the conflict there I think offer a perspective on the question about how images comment on britishness. His work in Belfast is quite different to that of Graham and Seawright who came after him a took a ver different approach. In the case of Seawright an aftermath or late approach. The image below say so much to me and works because it is in colour. The Union Jack Mural locates the work in a particular place and the principle subject locates the work in time. Although in monochrome this would still be an engaging image, it is Bulmer’s use of colour that gives the work power in my opinion.
When considering the use of colour in contemporary photography Martin Parr and his quirky take on the British offers further insight into the power of colour. Parr has a very distinctive style and his use of close up ring flash and macro lens create a very distinct and recognisable approach. There has been some criticism of Parr in that his work might be interpreted as being pejorative in that some have claimed it paints a mocking picture of some communities. He fiercely refutes this and suggests that his work opens up worlds that the wealthy and more affluent would otherwise never have seen. A good example are his images of holiday makers in New Brighton in his phonebook: The Last Resort. In this work he present a window into the world of families holidaying in the other resort at a time when Thatcher was extolling the virtue of wealth creation and the cult of the individual. What ever position views taken to Parr’s work it certainly says more than the pictorial element contained within each frame.
So, what difference does colour make? I suspect there are people with far more knowledge than me who have pondered on this question. I will offer a humble option though. Colour provides more than just additional information. Colour allows the photographer to make a more personal statement. Why? whilst some image makers have created very personal and individual monochrome work, Trent Parke comes to mind, much monochrome work looks very similar in my view. Colour offers some addiotnal layers of creativity and also allows for images to be far more located in time as well as place. I need to reflect further on this though as this course progresses.
I have really trudged thinking about the suggested shift away from the surrealist approaches of earlier documentary photography. I part that I see surrealist influence in much contemporary start photography. Indeed Street Photography Now is full of surrealist images. Surrealist work in many media often contain unexpected juxtapositions hat make the viewer as questions about what is real and to be frank I as stated I see this in some of the work around to day. As an experiment whist writing this I looked on Flickr at the images that were being explored this afternoon, more than 10% were acutely observed absurdities caught in plan sight. many had a cultural dimension to them, suggesting to me that surrealism as well as quirks of culture have a role to play in presenting , British, american or otherwise cultural representation of the world around us us. to illustrate this point I found the image below, very much capturing america (for example) today.
Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, OCA, Barnsley
Bulmer, J. ( 2012) The North, Bluecoat Publ., London
Scott, C. (2013) Street Photography- From Atget to Cartier Bresson, IB Tauris, London
Howarth, S. & McLaren, S Street Photography Nw
Parr, M. (2008) The Last Resort, Dewi Lewis Publ. London
Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, OCA, Barnsley