The essence of b&w reportage

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So here's something I've been chewing on for the last couple hours and could use some input on. I have always loved classic b&w reportage work. Think Eliot Erwitt, Mary Ellen Mark, Paul Fusco, maybe early Annie Leibowitz, Neil Leifer and Zimmerman's sports work, etc. The kind of thing that, to me, characterizes the old Time and Life magazine photography. Solid photo essays in b&w. It probably has a lot to do with the materials I first got my hands on when I first got into photography, but I definitely dig it. Anyhow, I'm trying to come up with some descriptive words that characterize this sort of work. So far, I haven't come up with much. What I get at this point is more of a visceral reaction to the work than anything else. Somebody want to throw me a bone on this? Any thoughts would be much appreciated.
 

ThomHarrop

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It must possess verisimilitude. That is, it need not represent life, but it must APPEAR to represent life.
 

BWGirl

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It also 'provokes' emotion... you know? It's not just a piece of work that makes you feel something when you look at it... it MAKES you feel something intentionally. Photo journalists don't just take pictures because there is something to take a picture of... they take them to provoke a response from the reader. Think about all the moving photos in journalism... the point is that all the good ones don't just 'move' you, they toss you out of your comfortable little life!
I hope this is of some use to you!
Jeanette
 

bjorke

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Context Alters Everything

When Gene Smith shot "Spanish Village," the process was as high-tech as reportage of the day got -- international phone calls and all. Likewise much of the material you cite.

Because of the pace of magazine work (as opposed to newspapers and spot jobs), the photographers got a chance to work on a story for a while. You can still see this in (usually color these days) magazine work -- check the usual PoY sites, VII or Magnum bureau sites, foto8, etc.

Today, B&W has an iconic role that a PJ is usually best to ignore (if possible). You should not try to recreate Gene Smith any more than a musician should try to be Buddy Holly -- perhaps as a novelty act, but probably not as an original voice. That said, the strengths of B&W photography can still be employed in PJ work. It's my opinion that B&W tends to stress the "moment," the narrative aspect of events, more strongly than does color -- color is so good at raw description that it can overwhelm the emotion and event (this is not a universal characteristic, of course -- there are some great color PJ works!)

An extra spin is that a dozen rolls of Tri-X and an M3 are going to be far more effective than an analog or digi color kit, when on a two-month shoot in the middle of Lower Boonswaggle, New Guinea, where there's no lab, satellite uplink, fresh batteries or even electrical service. Color film will die in the climate and the digi... you know the drill. Obvious modern examples can be found in Salgado, Peress, Jason Howe, et al.
 

Foto Ludens

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bjorke said:
Today, B&W has an iconic role that a PJ is usually best to ignore (if possible).

I disagree with you on this, Bjorke. To me, that is like saying that analogue photography has an artistic role that a modern photographer is best to ignore. Or that landscape photographers should only do digital color work, or they will invariably be Ansel Adams wanna-be's... you get the picture. You should not invalidate a practice only because it was once mainstream, but nowadays ceased to be.

I hope I don't come across agressive, or as a finger pointer (which would be ridiculous; I've seen some of your B&W work :smile: ) , I'm just trying to make my point clear.

I personally shoot black and white documentary projects, and do so for a variety of reasons. I think Jeanette (BWGirl) has a very good point on why B&W reportage has such an impact: It is shot with such an impact in mind. Furthermore, it often emphasizes issues otherwise ignored or played down by society. Such issues, when once again confronted, greet society with an open-handed slap to the face. Or at least the photographer hopes so.

By photographer I mean me.

I hope I don't sound like a snob... (heck, I've never published any of my documentary stuff).

As for why B&W, to me it's simple. Color, to me, is ugly. It's confusing, arbitrary, and othewise pointless. I really, really dislike color. That is why I shoot black and white. And that is why digital is so scary to me. Digital, like color, is arbitrary. B&W is less so.

The fact that black and white isolates the elements in the picture is considered in the above point.

As an interesting side mark, I tend to think that color work emphasizes the "moment" much more than B&W. To me, color is to snapshots as B&W is to timelessness. I usually think of B&W documetary work as stressing a general/universal issue, rather than a specific event. Think Salgado's "Migrations" as opposed to whomever's "Diplomat meets President". This is an exageration, I know, but I think it makes the point clear.

And of course, here is the disclaimer: I dig (some) color work as well. There are people who do it well (but my mind just went blank).

But to me, B&W is still king.
 

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Actually I don't disagree with your sentiments at all, just your (mis)interpretation of what I wrote. By "iconic" I meant: "evokes Dorothea Lange and Hank Carter." Certainly an image/subject can be used in an iconic way -- by coincidence, I have a copy of Salgado's TERRA open here on my desk right now, and certainly he's quite adept at making these cane workers, miners, and so forth into iconic figures. But specifically, I meant icons of photo history, not Human History.

Similarly, by "moment" I didn't mean "an event" which might last many moments, but a very-specific 1/125th of a second -- one for each individual frame. B&W's emphasis on form makes such moments very important, at least when photographing human subjects. Even a person in apparent repose will have a face and eyes that shift and flow like mercury.

This has little to do with the oft-cited "timelessness" of B&W. I'm torn on how to interpret this "timelessness," uncertain if it's related to our nostalgia for a mostly-B&W past (the sort a modern PJ should approach at arm's length) or if it's related to the way human memories tend to record B&W detail but not color (well-know to cognitive psychs). I prefer to think that the latter is a stronger influence and so continue to do mostly B&W shooting, despite having fixer fingers and a sink that's developing permanent purple Rodinal stains.

(As for shooting Adams-like landscapes.... well, yes, actually. It is the blunt truth that Adams has left such a large impression on that genre that one must be very deliberate to avoid the "Adams-like" impression -- especially when so many photographers, like Adams, photograph the wild places in a search for The Sublime)

Finally, please remember that I said usually -- not always! There are plenty of great photos yet to be made that will surprise us all.
 

papagene

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For me, in photojournalism, B&W cuts right to the core of an event/moment, taking out all distractions that color can add. Where as with color, in the hands of a lesser photographer, it can distract, mislead or muddy the visual intent of the photographer.
I feel that B&W is a more useful and readily available tool for the photojournalist.
gene
 

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Bjorke,

I guess I'm happy to agree with you. I'm sorry I misinterpreted your statements (or some of them :smile: )

take it easy,
 

Les McLean

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I don't think you can generalise and say that B&W is always better than colour or vice versa for reportage photography. I personally prefer B&W for it removes the reality of colour and sort of forces the photographer to use the power of seeing to tell the story. By that I mean that the photographer has to find a way to convince the viewer that the story shown is valid or worth spending time to look at it. On the other hand there are times when colour is essential, the image that springs to my mind is the one of the fireman carrying the child in the Oaklahoma bombing a few years ago. Whilst it is not the type of image that we ever want to see again it was powerful but I think that the power would have been diminished had it been B&W.

Another example of good use of B&W and colour are two bodies of reportage that Martin Parr of Magnum did a few years ago, the first, in B&W was telling the story of the demise of Wesleyan Chapels in north west England and the second in colour was of New Brighton, a run down northern England seaside holiday resort. Neither would have worked but for the choice that Parr made in when to use either B&W or colour.
 

papagene

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Les,
I agree with what you say - you actually said what I wanted to say, but much better. I am not much of a word-smith, which is why I express myself visually.
gene
 
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Reportage doesn't mean the same as documentalism.
If both B&W and color are well done, reportage (as all serious photography) is better in B&W, and documentalism is better in color.
 
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I disagree with you on this, Bjorke. To me, that is like saying that analogue photography has an artistic role that a modern photographer is best to ignore. Or that landscape photographers should only do digital color work, or they will invariably be Ansel Adams wanna-be's... you get the picture. You should not invalidate a practice only because it was once mainstream, but nowadays ceased to be.

I hope I don't come across agressive, or as a finger pointer (which would be ridiculous; I've seen some of your B&W work :smile: ) , I'm just trying to make my point clear.

I personally shoot black and white documentary projects, and do so for a variety of reasons. I think Jeanette (BWGirl) has a very good point on why B&W reportage has such an impact: It is shot with such an impact in mind. Furthermore, it often emphasizes issues otherwise ignored or played down by society. Such issues, when once again confronted, greet society with an open-handed slap to the face. Or at least the photographer hopes so.

By photographer I mean me.

I hope I don't sound like a snob... (heck, I've never published any of my documentary stuff).

As for why B&W, to me it's simple. Color, to me, is ugly. It's confusing, arbitrary, and othewise pointless. I really, really dislike color. That is why I shoot black and white. And that is why digital is so scary to me. Digital, like color, is arbitrary. B&W is less so.

The fact that black and white isolates the elements in the picture is considered in the above point.

As an interesting side mark, I tend to think that color work emphasizes the "moment" much more than B&W. To me, color is to snapshots as B&W is to timelessness. I usually think of B&W documetary work as stressing a general/universal issue, rather than a specific event. Think Salgado's "Migrations" as opposed to whomever's "Diplomat meets President". This is an exageration, I know, but I think it makes the point clear.

And of course, here is the disclaimer: I dig (some) color work as well. There are people who do it well (but my mind just went blank).

But to me, B&W is still king.
Color shots are pretty and can be reportage, documentary and for impact. But BW focuses more on content and impact since there is no color. So it forces the viewer to look at it differently. Color says pretty. BW asks what does it say. Bw is also more gritty, which aligns with reportage, like street photography or essays about people.
 
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For me, in photojournalism, B&W cuts right to the core of an event/moment, taking out all distractions that color can add. Where as with color, in the hands of a lesser photographer, it can distract, mislead or muddy the visual intent of the photographer.
I feel that B&W is a more useful and readily available tool for the photojournalist.
gene
You said it better than me.
 
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