The Color of Street: The History of Color Street Photography

“Two Cops Patrolling Subway,” Bronx, NY, 1981. Martha Cooper

Anyone who’s ever seen my photography probably knows that I strongly prefer color to black and white. I have written extensively on why I do before, so I won’t repeat those arguments in their entirety here. Suffice it to say that there are three camps when it comes to street photography: those who believe “pure” street is black and white, those who feel you’re omitting something crucial when you shoot in monochrome, and those who use both, according to their merits. I would advocate being in the latter camp, but the choice is, obviously yours. In this article, I’d like to focus on those who have been led to believe that black and white is your only choice when it comes to street. While, I probably won’t change a purist’s mind, hopefully I can present some arguments in color photography’s favor, and show some of the color masters you may have overlooked.

Why Black and White Became the Standard

Louis Daguerre

The short answer to this question is complexity, control, and money. Street photography emerged as an art from on 7 January 1839, when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre showed the results of his invention to the French Academy of Sciences. Daguerre didn’t invent photography, his partner, Nicéphore Niépce did, but Daguerre was the one who made it a commercially feasible enterprise, and those are the people history remembers. The following is from The Art and History of Street Photography series on the blog Raw Naked Art.

“[M]embers of the French Académie des Sciences were shown artifacts from an invention by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who humbly called his then-astonishing prints daguerreotypes. These were the first photographs – highly polished, silver-plated sheets — produced from an actual camera, which Daguerre invented. It wasn’t magic, although as someone suggested, had it emerged a couple hundred years earlier, someone would have burned his ass as a witch. Daguerre had been looking for a way to permanently record what he saw on his camera obscura, and the 1820s work of Nicéphore Niépce was just the thing. Niépce, now credited with inventing photography, worked with Daguerre to develop the set of chemicals that allowed Daguerre to develop daguerreotypes some six years after his partner’s death. The first permanent photo ever recorded was by Niépce, a view of his window, in 1827. Still, the process was unreliable, the image blurry, and it took 8 hours exposure. Daguerre’s process took only 10 to 30 minutes.”

Incidentally, it’s important to note that the first photograph to be recognized fit neatly somewhere between street and landscape photography. The industry was born. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art stated, “From the moment of its birth, photography had a dual character—as a medium of artistic expression and as a powerful scientific tool—and Daguerre promoted his invention on both fronts.”

Indeed, Daguerre’s most famous photo, “Boulevard du Temple,“ taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, includes the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The image shows a street, but because of the over-ten-minute exposure time, the moving traffic does not appear. At the lower left, however, is a man apparently having his boots polished along with the bootblack who was polishing them. The two were motionless enough for their images to be captured, and are forever immortalized on the print. Street photography was born at the moment of photography’s inception.

Daguerre chose a street scene as an early photo, perhaps because it is what painters had been doing for centuries. Indeed, as Maria Jones-Phillips points out in her article, “An Introduction to Vivian Maier, and the Phenomenon of the Artist-Photographer,” you can trace the idea of life on the street as a vibrant art form as far back as Canaletto’s paintings of Venetian life. Daguerre opened the door to photography and at the same time, the idea of photographing life on the street. By the mid-1860s, shooters like Scotland’s John Thompson were traveling the world with their bulky cameras, documenting life on the street. By the time Thompson was famous, both black and white (or at least monochrome) and color prints were available. All required complex processing, a great deal of time, and bulky equipment. Why, then, did black and white win out over color? The short answer: the relative simplicity of black and white processing (when compared to color processing) meant mono was the choice of publishers due simply to economics.

Monochrome photography evolved through several iterations, including 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 for decades. By 1880, halftone prints made from photos were already being published in newspapers, while the first genuine color prints were just becoming available for those who could afford them.


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

By the early 1900s, real color photography was possible for the public; however, other than for the purposes of experimentation and some advertising printing, it was rarely used by professional and most amateur photographers. Without demand from newspapers, magazines, and publishers of photographic essays, shooter forewent the added difficulty of color and shot mostly in street. By the 1930s, it was fully entrenched as the de facto standard.

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

However, the 1930s is also when Eastman Kodak first 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. Newspaper photography, led by the likes of shooters like Weegee (Arthur Fellig), remained exclusively in b&w since the papers weren’t printing in color anyway, and color film and prints remained too expensive for the women and men who were shooting hundreds of frames per week.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, color printing and film processing had evolved, but they were still decades behind monochrome processing in terms of simplicity. 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 health problems. Thus, few but pros could produce a color print without a professional lab, and even if they did, the print’s 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.

MOMA, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Monochrome Aesthetic

Although economics was the driving force behind black and white photography becoming the dominant aesthetic in photography, it was, by no means, the only reason. Street photography as a form had its roots not in photography, but in painting. Masters like Canaletto expanded the use of street scenes painted as theatrical backdrops to create an in-demand industry for street paintings. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, people liked it.

Oil on Canvas By Canaletto – Rio Dei Mendicanti

Two important things happened when this type of art became popular: artists understood the public’s fascination with ordinary life depicted in an artistic way, and collectors learned that such art could be valuable. These paintings were often based on images sketched using camera obscuras that allowed artists to make the scenes realistic.

So, when actual photography became available, it was a natural leap to capture permanent photographic images much in the same that painters had been doing for centuries. Now, anyone with an artistic eye and a camera could be the painter of images. But how to gain acceptance as an art form? Surely collectors would rather have a scene rendered by Canaletto’s hand than Joe Doe’s snap with his handy Leica. Here, friends, is where the black and white aesthetic came in.

The images behind a photograph remains with the copyright holder, most often the photographer. The print, however, the thing, goes to whoever bought it. Collectors, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) can’t own the image, but they can own the thing. So, for the photo to achieve acceptance as a museum-quality art form–the thing–the print became the valuable commodity. This, we intuitively get. But how to make a museum value photography as an art form in the first place? Well, two things have to happen. One, you need shooters skilled enough to take images that not only hold up over time, but actually become more interesting as time passes. My series on the History of Street Photography shows that we’ve had bucket loads of those people. Two, you have to present them with an artifact that they will see as being exclusive and valuable over time. This requires the print to be that artifact.

Settling on black and white solved two immediate problems for collectors. First, color prints fade faster than black and white, as we’ve discussed. An artifact that lasts for three decades, tops, is not a good investment for a museum. Secondly, even if your collection is an exhibition that isn’t meant to last, photography needed something to differentiate it from painting. Monochrome pigments was that thing. While we think of b&w as being gritty and realistic, in truth is quite unrealistic. We gain control over the scene, reducing it to light and shadow, patterns and lines. MOMA and others loved it because of its immediacy and simplicity, and especially because it looked modern and nothing at all like a vibrant painting.

In no time, the mark that a street photographer had “made it” was being selected for an exhibition in an exclusive setting like MOMAs, and monochrome was the entry ticket. Some early influential photographers, most notably Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, advocated black and white to the exclusion of all else, and others followed. However, we most also note that HCB’s non-photographic art was also predominately b&w. The man used color, but clearly it wasn’t his thing. Frank has stated bluntly that he doesn’t like color. Sadly, too many newer photographers took that to be a condemnation of the art of the color photograph instead of the personal preference of two men.

Fortunately for us, most photographers–even those who shot primarily in black and white–held no such prejudice. Some, like Garry Winogrand, said explicitly that their only reason for not shooting more color was the cost. Since they often shot 200-300 frames at a time, the added cost of color film was prohibitive, and 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.

Garry Winogrand

The photos Winogrand took in color weren’t better or worse than the others; they were different. We see a woman dressed in a straw hat and heels and understand her and others’ penchant for pastel colors in the 1960s. We see Winogrand himself through the frame of a pink mirror. His photos still highlight the choreography of human legs and women’s place in society, but now his focus moves to the people’s plumage as much as their human dance. We lose a bit of the Winogrand’s focus on form and gain emotion, vibrancy, and the prevailing (changing) color palette of life on Earth.

“Real street” wasn’t solely black and white; photographers shot mostly in black and white because color was harder, more expensive, and took more (or at least a different) skill. Fine art photographers often still chose b&w because it lent itself to simplified compositions and exaggerated tonal contrasts. If all you see is light and form, you can more readily focus the viewer on precisely what you want them to see. With color, there  are added dimensions–the colors of the subject, how those colors blend or clash with its environment, and how light changes colors and vice versa. Does the photographer lower light levels to capture the deep tonal ranges or does s/he opt for a brighter, more vivid shot and hope to recapture the tones in post-processing. These aren’t new problems, but they are different ones.

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

Black and white photography isn’t easy either. The print will look quite different on paper than emphasizes blue tones (making skin dark) versus red tones (wherein they are lighter). If your viewfinder is full-color but the output isn’t, you’ll have to do some mental math to ensure the image looks how you want it? Will you use a red filter? Yellow? Blue? Each one produces a radically different result. Black and white photographers have to think about the form, the pattern, the contrasts differently than color photographers do, and if you are looking through a monochrome viewfinder, the output might not match your idea and your results will suffer. Each medium, b&w and color, is different. The skills are different, and most will find it challenging to jump from one to the other. If you’ve shot mostly in mono, you may find you initially hate color until you master looking for color instead of light patterns, etc. The reverse is also true. So, if color is hard, if switching is hard, and if mono is arty while color is for Instagram, why bother? Why not just shoot street in black and white and try to be like Robert Frank?

1. Because Frank was good at what he was good at. He wasn’t good at the things he never tried; no one is. 2. The world is in color. If you never shoot the street in color, in 20 years, your photos will have lost some vital information that you may want back — like how colors change in the fashions your subjects are wearing. 3. Just because a thing was first doesn’t make it the standard. Standards change; if you’re a shooter, you need to be good at both color and monochrome.

Let me hammer on my main point once again to make it clear. The predominant proponents of black and white photography have been 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, overly contrasty 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. Museums have picked up on the beauty of the (sometimes quaint or outdated) color of the prints and have begun to lean heavily in the direction of color. We’ve profiled several masters here in this article (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 favorites, 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.

Some Early Color Street Photography Masters

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.

Fred Herzog

Herzog is Canadian photographer known for his shots of working class people and their environs, especially in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he resided. Born in Germany, Herzog achieved moderate success earlier in his career; however, his first major exhibition was at Vancouver Art Gallery in 2007, after which he produced a number of books. When not shooting street, he works as a medical photographer.

Jeff Mermelstein

Mermelstein is another NYC street shooter, known especially for his close-up work, and in particular the first photo below.

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.

Remember, at the end of your shoot, ultimately what you’ve captured is light, reflecting off surfaces, and painted by the grays and blacks of shadow. Nothing changes with color, except that the hues of the reflected light are more interesting, and the shadows are as often blue as they are black. Composition is what will determine if your work is street or not, and emulating masters who were limited to color by necessity makes about as much sense as NASCAR attempting to race on horseback or painters limiting themselves to egg tempura.

Life is in color. Go get yourself some.


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