Urban Street Photography in Pure Black and White – Capture the Powerful Poetry of the Streets

Black and white photography is a favourite for street photography for several reasons

This might convince you to have a go at taking black and white street photographs.

Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023
Berlin Bahnhof. Waiting with a Bike in the sunshine

Image by the Author

One reason is that deep gut feeling that somehow, black and white photography has that inherently poetic value that attracts us to treasure the images we capture.

The gradations of tones are easy on the eye, but complex for the soul.

Complexity in photography is not a bad thing. Complicated pictures are too much trouble for the eyes and brain, “complex” is full of intrigue and mystery – someplace in there, there’s a story.

Müggelsee swimmer 2023
Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023

Müggelsee swimmer – Image by the Author

Timelessness and Classic Appeal. Black and white images have a timeless quality that can evoke a sense of nostalgia and harken back to the early days of photography.

When do you think that the photo above of a swimmer was taken. It could have been in the 1930s, or the 1980s. But I took the shot this year, 2023, and only five days ago. It already possesses a feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a human emotion that photography evokes in people – we look back, but in a good way; it’s healthy to remember past times, and mull over them with a positive feeling of nostalgia.

This classic appeal can lend a certain aesthetic and artistic quality to street photographs, making them feel more enduring and iconic.

Below is a urban street scene that I came across while out doing street photography. I couldn’t figure out what the smokey atmosphere was all about. People sat and watched it, kids ran through the spray of mist and enjoyed it as if was a playground.

It was a hot day, and I saw a composition in the street – without too much thought I positioned myself and took my urban street shot – about three captures that made sure I had a composition.

I find it intriguing. The whole thing is about composition, not necessarily about a “frame”. The content holds it up, and gives the photo a feeling of story and curiosity.

The black and white finished photo removes incidentals that would disturb the eye’s movement across the composition, more than help it find a point of interest.

Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023. Berlin Street Photography

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Focus on Composition and Forms: Removing colour from the equation allows photographers to focus more on the elements of composition, such as lines, shapes, patterns, and textures.

By stripping away the distraction of colour, black and white photography emphasizes the visual elements that define a scene, leading to more powerful and impactful images.

Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023 Berlin Street Photography Brandenburg Gate on a summer's evening. Black and white photography

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Enhanced Contrast and Tonal Range: Black and white photography relies heavily on the interplay between light and dark tones.

The absence of colour allows for greater control over contrast and tonal range, enabling photographers to create striking images with strong shadows, highlights, and a wide range of grays in between.

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This can add drama, depth, and a sense of atmosphere to street photographs. Elimination of Distractions: In a busy street scene, colours can sometimes be distracting or overpowering. By converting images to black and white, street photographers can eliminate these distractions and draw the viewer’s attention to the subject, the emotions captured, and the overall story being told.

Emotional Impact: Black and white photography has the ability to evoke emotions and convey a mood more effectively. By simplifying the image to shades of gray, it can emphasize the raw emotions and human experiences captured in street photography.

Mobile Photography at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023

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The absence of colour often lends a certain timelessness and universality to the images, allowing viewers to connect on a deeper level. While black and white photography is not inherently superior to colour photography in street photography, it offers a unique aesthetic and visual language that resonates well with the genre.

The street photography below – or train station shot – allowed me to build a composition based on broad spaces. The structures above and below, the pillars to each side, create the frame. The woman is waiting for a train which will arrive in about three minutes. Somehow, I felt that there was sense of relaxation mixed with an intertwining tension in the photo – all very subtle of course, but nevertheless, it’s there. Black and white handling allows the central idea to become “punchy”. The woman waiting, the location, the boredom.

Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023
Waiting for the train. Mehringdamm, berlin, 2023

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Ultimately, the choice between black and white or colour photography is a matter of personal preference and the story the photographer wants to convey.

There are many well-known black and white street photographers who have made significant contributions to the genre.

Here are a few famous and interesting names of black and white photographers.

  1. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Regarded as the father of modern photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson was known for his candid black and white street photography. His images captured decisive moments, human emotions, and the essence of everyday life.
  2. Robert Frank. Frank’s book “The Americans” is a seminal work in street photography. His gritty black and white images explored American culture and society, challenging the prevailing norms of the time.
  3. Daido Moriyama. Moriyama is a Japanese photographer known for his raw and intense black and white street photography. His high-contrast images often feature dark, blurry, and abstract elements, creating a sense of urban chaos and alienation.
  4. Vivian Maier. Although relatively unknown during her lifetime, Maier’s work gained posthumous recognition as one of the great street photographers. Her extensive collection of black and white images, discovered after her death, documented life in Chicago and New York with a keen eye for composition and human observation.
  5. Garry Winogrand. Winogrand was known for his prolific street photography output. His black and white images captured the energy and contradictions of American life, often featuring humorous or ironic moments.
  6. Sebastião Salgado. While not exclusively a street photographer, Salgado’s black and white images of people and communities around the world have a documentary quality and social conscience. His work explores themes of human dignity, social inequality, and environmental issues.

Black and white photos can attract significant attention.

While colour photography is prevalent in our visual world, black and white images have a timeless and artistic quality that can captivate viewers.

Here are a few reasons why black and white photos can grab attention:

  1. Artistic Quality. Black and white photography often carries a certain aesthetic appeal that can stand out in a world saturated with colour imagery. The absence of colour allows viewers to focus on other visual elements, such as composition, light and shadow, textures, and emotions. This artistic quality can make black and white photos visually striking and intriguing.
  2. Emotional Impact. The removal of colour in black and white images can enhance the emotional impact of a photograph. By stripping away the distractions of colour, the focus shifts to the subject, expressions, and the story being told. The simplicity of black and white can evoke a sense of nostalgia, timelessness, or even melancholy, drawing viewers into the image and eliciting a deeper emotional response.
  3. Visual Contrast. Black and white images often rely on strong contrasts between light and dark tones. This interplay of shadows and highlights can create a visually dynamic and dramatic effect that catches the eye. The starkness of the black and white palette can enhance the visual impact of the subject and the overall composition.
  4. Timelessness and Classic Appeal. Black and white photography has a long history and is associated with iconic images from the past. This classic appeal can pique the curiosity and interest of viewers, drawing them in to explore the image further. Black and white images can have a universal quality that transcends specific time periods and cultural contexts, making them relatable to a broader audience.
  5. Uniqueness and Differentiation. In a world dominated by colour photography, black and white images can offer a unique and distinctive visual experience. They stand out from the crowd and can be seen as a deliberate artistic choice. This differentiation can attract attention and make black and white photos memorable in a sea of colourful imagery.

While the impact of a photograph depends on various factors, including subject matter, composition, and storytelling, black and white photography has the potential to command attention and engage viewers through its artistic qualities and emotional resonance.