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 notes in your learning log.
Helen Levitt’s work, based around New York City. She used colour in her work in the sixties.
Martin Parr has long been commended for his work which concentrates predominately on the British and their Britishisms from a satirical viewpoint. He uses a saturated colour throughout most of his work.
Paul Graham said: “it has steadily become less important to me that the photographs are about something in the most obvious way. I am interested in more elusive and nebulous subject matter. The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether of nothingness… you can’t sum up the results in a single line. In a way, ‘a shimmer of possibility’ is really about these nothing moments in life.”
This reminds me of the way John Szarkowski described photography “has not been to reform life, but to know it.”
Many photographers like Helen Levitt used photography as a way to record life as it was, in a more descriptive fashion. Paul Graham gradually steered away from this.
Eric Kim is a photographer based in Los Angeles who utilises the rise of social media to promote his street photography work and he’s very popular. He calls his work “social critique street photography” He shoots in both colour and black and white and says when he shoots black and white, he searches for shapes, light, shadows, form etc and if it’s in colour, he looks for that.
Rui Palha’s is a street photographer from Lisbon. He lists Cartier-Bresson as an influence. His photos are cinematic, contain strong shapes and are all black and white. When asked why he prefers black and white he said:
“If you look at a black and white photograph, and if you feel something pleasant or if you like it a lot it’s because the photograph is telling you something without artifices or distractions and, for sure, the photograph is good. Sometimes a colour photo is appealing just because the combination of the colours is beautiful“.
Donato di Camillo
Donato di Camillo is an ex convict who taught himself to use a camera whilst serving his sentence. He lists Martin Parr as one of his influences and I can see the strong similarities between them. His work is reminiscent of Parr’s The Last Resort and more recently, Brexit Britain in his Only Human exhibition.
Giacomo Brunelli is an Italian photographer based in London, he uses a gelatine silver process for most of his work. His work is interesting and reminds me of Bill Brandt
Colour or Black and White?
I have always been a fan of black and white. To me, it’s timeless, classic cinematic and easily viewed. For street photography, previously, it had always been my preference because I believed it allowed the mind to really concentrate on the scene without the colour element interfering.
During my last module, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone for a previous assignment and shot some street photography in colour, I have to say it was the assignment that I struggled with the most. But in turn, colour found it’s way into my heart through it and I can now appreciate the benefits it has on a much stronger level.
However, there are certain times when I believe a photograph would lose so much without the presence of colour. In vibrant scenes for instance, it would almost be a sin to not show the colour within. Colour, to me, adds a back up to the emotion within a picture. Vibrant, bright colours give a sense of happiness, positivity and many other positive feelings, dull, dark colours create a mood that is quite the opposite. Colour enhances the emotion within a photograph and makes it more “real life”. Black and white makes the scene seem other worldly, fantasy and timeless like a story. Perhaps, the voyeuristic nature of street photography is more easily digested when shot in black and white since you feel slightly more set apart from it. I believe it enables you to look without that feeling of unease as to whether you should be looking or not.
When I was photographing in Berlin, for instance, I viewed my work both with colour and without. I ended up preferring the colour as it felt to me that it better represented my time there.
Viewing the same images in black and white didn’t appeal to me for the first time. And it was the first time that I didn’t convert my images to black and white as well, as I had always done previously.
I think colour is something that grows on you in time but there still has to be a reason for it. If colour is not the predominant aim, then it shouldn’t overtake the image and swallow it’s meaning either.
When I started my research, I couldn’t distinguish a particular shift away from surrealism at all. Whilst I could certainly see where people’s influences lie, I found many differing artists using their own take on Street photography, some surrealist, some not. Cartier-Bresson still has a clear influence on many photographers today, but those like Michael Wolf, for instance have played around with both. “Portraits Made in China” for instance was clear and to the point, it showed the subjects as they were (or how he chose them to appear) similar to Walker Evans. But he also shot a series called Tokyo Compression, in which subjects were (unknowingly) captured through the window of a train when on the commute.
So I don’t believe that there really has been a significant shift away from surrealism, they can both co-exist quite happily within the world of street photography. However, excluding the above example of Michael Wolf, many recent surrealist shots I found, were still mostly shot in black and white. Perhaps this adds to that “other-worldly” effect I mentioned previously. But clearly, as in the example above, colour can work with surrealism too.
Martin Parr is the king of irony with his work. Irony seems to take the obvious, the legend, the cliche as we all know it to be and then emphasising it within a photograph. It turns real, normal people into a sort of iconic figure of the example that it’s portraying.
It makes the real, unreal, but also too real at the same time. We knew these people and places existed, we’ve all heard about them, perhaps we, ourselves, even display some of the same mannerisms and likenesses, but when it’s thrown back in your face for you to view in all it’s splendidly gory detail, it can be somewhat of a shock.
Ironic images such as Martin Parr’s offer up mixed feeling when viewing, as I found out when I visited his exhibition “Only Human” in London. Firstly, I began with a corse stance, these photos grated on me somewhat. That was followed with slight sense of uncomfortable embarrassment (somewhat caused by being British too), then wondering if that’s how the world saw me. I finished with a warm appreciation for the people within the pictures and a sense of affection towards them. Irony has the ability to throw up many contrasting emotions all at once and I don’t think it’s easily achieved. Push too far and your images could be considered offensive, don’t capture enough detail to make it obvious and it’s just another portrait.