Pioneers of Color Street Photography

Anyone who’s ever seen my photography probably knows that I strongly prefer color to black and white. Maria and I have written on the differences before, so I won’t repeat those arguments here in total. I realize that many people think true photography is black and white, but suffice it to say, you’re wrong. 😉 Based on some asinine visitor comments I stumbled across, I realize I have to add the obvious here, that my previous statement was tongue in cheek. I guess some people don’t speak emoji. Dear reader, I don’t hate black and white. I’ve shot it since 1974. However, it is NOT better than color, nor is it a standard. It was simply cheaper.

The simple truth is that no one shooting analog could really afford color unless they were being fully backed by a professional magazine, even as late as the 1970s when I started, so b&w remained the standard.

By the  time the 1950s rolled around, color printing and film processing had evolved, but it was still decades behind monochrome processing. Perhaps you wouldn’t have to ingest mercury vapors as you did with daguerreotypes, but long-term exposure to the expensive color-processing chemicals caused real damage, including health problems. Thus, few but pros could produce a color print without a professional lab, and even if they did, its life expectancy was 35 years (some of those faded and red) compared to a b&w print’s 75 years. Black and white photography continued to be the standard for street photography primarily because producing color prints remained expensive right up until they were largely replaced by digital processing.

Monochrome photography had gone through the gelatin silver print, gum dichromate (reddish monochrome), halftone, paper negatives, photogravure, platinum prints, salt prints, and woodbury types on the road to develop cheap, repeatable black and white printing. While the first durable color print was created in 1861, little progress was made in color photographic printing. Around the time that halftone prints made from photos hit newpapers in 1880, the first genuine color prints were available.


An 1877 color photographic print on paper by Louis Ducos du Hauron. – Wikipedia

By the early 1900s, real color photography was possible, however, other than for the purposes of experimentation and some advertising printing, it was rarely used by photographers.

The Emir of Bukhara in a 1911 color photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. At right is the triple color-filtered black-and-white glass plate negative, shown here as a positive. - Wikipedia

The Emir of Bukhara in a 1911 color photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. At right is the triple color-filtered black-and-white glass plate negative, shown here as a positive. – Wikipedia

This changed in the 1930s, when Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome color film. Like Kodak’s b&w film, Kodachrome followed Kodak’s “you press the button, we do the rest process.” Photographers took photos in the normal way (strikingly different from the prior process of lining up three color plates) and Kodak did the developing in their color labs. There was just one problem: it was still a complicated mess to process, and not readily available to pros. As Wikipedia states:

“Kodachrome had three layers of emulsion coated on a single base, each layer recording one of the three additive primaries, red, green, and blue. The complicated part, if the complexities of manufacturing the film are ignored, was the processing, which involved the controlled penetration of chemicals into the three layers of emulsion. Only a simplified description of the process is appropriate in a short history: as each layer was developed into a black-and-white silver image, a “dye coupler” added during that stage of development caused a cyan, magenta or yellow dye image to be created along with it. The silver images were chemically removed, leaving only the three layers of dye images in the finished film.”

Sounds like fun, if you like toxic chemicals and don’t mind that you were almost certainly going to be sensitive to them before your career ended. Color film was still expensive compared to monochrome, and the slow ISO speeds meant it wasn’t great with indoor lighting. By the 1950s, few amateurs or pros who did their own developing had switched to color. By 1970, the year I took up photography, flash units had made indoor photography easier, and the price of color film had come down enough that it was no longer reserved for special occasions.

Street photographers, however, remained in love with black and white, often because they’d never learned color. Some shooters, like Garry Winogrand, said explicitly that their only reason for not shooting more color was the cost. When you shoot 200-300 frames per day, the added cost of color film added up, especially as the complexity of the color process meant they were limited to slides if they didn’t want to pay for prints of absolutely everything they shot. Think that isn’t true? Well, consider this. Many old-time pros never switched from analog to digital for the same reason as others refused to shoot in color: they new film and so digital felt … wrong.

“Real street” wasn’t solely black and white; photographers shot mostly in black and white because color was harder, more expensive, and took more skill. Fine art photographers often chose b&w because with simplified compositions and exaggerated tonal contrasts it’s easier to create visual images that some poor schmuck will pay for. (As controversial as my position may be, I still swear by the fact that many people shoot only monochrome because it’s relatively easier. It’s also often quite boring unless you are skilled in making compositions, which, sadly, many photographers are not.)

Think only monochrome can be contrasty and fine arty?

Untitled (Atlanta) 1984, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Untitled (Atlanta), 1984, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Let me be very clear on one point. The predominant proponents of black and white photography have been (spit) museums and galleries. Why, you ask? What do museums display? What do galleries sell? Prints. Things. Stuff. What do photographers take? Images. Light. Ephemerals. Museums don’t like that. They love their prints, and a thing that will begin to redden in 20 years and fade in 35 isn’t something they can keep and display. Black and white, over-saturated prints, however, will last nearly a century. Yay for the thing. (Notice the “courtesy of” marker in the caption above? That’s the point. Owning the thing. If you own the thing, the thing better last.)

Fortunately, there have been a number of street photographers who braved the medium, paving the way for hacks like me. We’ve profiled several masters here on this blog (Levitt, Parks, Davidson, Meyerowitz) but I encourage you to look them all up on your own and see what the medium can do. For the sake of time and space, here are my top 10, with a brief sample of each of their work. Each features color prominently as a part of the overall composition, balancing warm and cool tones, all while preserving or enhancing street photography’s natural spontaneity.

As an aside, I’d prefer that comments be relegated to the photographers’ works, and not why I’m wrong and you think black and white is sexy and wonderful. You won’t influence my opinion–46 years of photography has done that. If you love b&w, cool, continue to shoot it. This post is for those of us who like, shoot, and prefer to look at color photos. Thanks.

Helen Levitt

Levitt was noted for street photography around New York City, and has been called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time,” at least until Vivian Maier came along. Notice her style uses specific color palettes that change over time. As with b&w, her prints feature deep contrasts and rich use of pigment. (The thing)


Harry Gruyaert

Gruyaert is a Belgian photographer known for  for his images of India, Morocco, Egypt, and other places, and for his rich use of color. His work features both the deep color brush used above, as well as more subtle shading, as in the 2nd photo.


Gordon Parks

Parks was an American photographer, musician, writer and filmmaker, who became prominent in photojournalism in the 1940s through the 1970s, often focusing on civil rights issues. His work showed you can feature some of life’s stark realities without limiting your palette to grays and blacks.


Joel Meyerowitz

Meyerowitz is a street and landscape photographer, and an early proponent of color, when most “artists” resisted it, during the early 1960s. He taught first color course at the Cooper Union in New York City. Notice the blurriness of the first photo. Street isn’t always perfect–sometimes spontaneity is more important than sharpness.


Bruce Davidson

Davidson is a NYC photographer known for his fearlessness and for taking photos in hostile environments. His use of color in those gritty environments was groundbreaking and fallacy shattering. In my humble opinion, these are what Robert Frank’s The Americans photos should have looked like.


William Eggleston

Eggleston is another American, and in my opinion, his work is often stunning in its simplicity. It uses color to display both the reality and unreality of photography. The colors are true and exaggerated; the scenes are in decline and permanently preserved. They capture life as it was (yes, people loved those flowered prints) but not as it is now. That, I think, is street’s more important purpose, and some of that information is lost as colors are removed.


Saul Leiter

Leiter was an American whose work in the ’40s and ’50s popularized the “New York School” and whose use of early color sets him as one of its true pioneers. His photos show the ways that color can be distinguishing in street, revealing details that are interesting because of their color, and not in spite of them, like the yellow fin of the old Cadillac. It’s hard to imagine black and white doing his photos justice.


Stephen Shore

According to Wikipedia, Shore “is an American photographer known for his images of banal scenes and objects in the United States and for his pioneering use of color in art photography. I call his work the photography of the ordinary, (a school I follow) though hardly the “snapshot” aesthetic. The colors aren’t especially rich, the scene not dramatic; it’s simply using color to show life as it is, while keeping the composition of the frame as the most important element… in other words, it’s photography.


Alex Webb

Webb is another American, born in 1952 and still working. His work shows the mainstreaming of color brought on by magazines such as Time, Life, etc. He has worked during the time when professional street photography crossed over to documentary photography, merging them so that they can no longer be distinguished.


Martin Parr

Parr is a British photographer known, as WIkipedia states, “for his photographic projects that take an intimate, satirical, and anthropological look at aspects of modern life, in particular documenting the social classes of England, and more broadly the wealth of the Western World.” Stated simpler, he uses crisp, realistic, and/or muted color palettes to show life in his world with a humorous and distinctly British bent. Love it.


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