Reflection: colour in documentary photography

In a similar vein to my earlier post about how the course notes have a section on B&W documentary photography without really exploring its particular characteristics, I find myself experiencing déjà vu on the Colour section. Where, in all of the discussions of particular projects, photographers and sub-genres, is there any discussion of the distinctive characteristics, or advantages and disadvantages, of colour photography?

One major advantage of colour that I had recognised (with the help of some comments on one of my earlier assignments) is that it places a set of images a contemporary time period. By comparison, B&W has the tendency to appear to belong to the past. This present vs past placement is particularly important with contemporary social documentary, e.g. a project on slum housing in 2016 risks looking like a project from the 1960s if it is delivered in B&W.

Beyond this characteristic of colour photography, I’d drawn a blank… until I read Stuart Franklin’s excellent book, The Documentary Impulse (2016). The analysis herein is the closest I’ve seen to an exploration of specific colours as carriers of signification (inserted carriage returns are my own, for clarity of reading):

“Colour is a utensil in the rhetorical toolbox that photographers (and artists) use to add enforced meaning to documentary work.

Warm coloured lighting (reminiscent of firelight or candlelight) connotes a friendlier environment than green fluorescent or cold blue light.

Green lends a disquieting mood to a photograph. It is often the residual unfiltered colour that daylight film makes of fluorescent light. Early polaroid film had a green cast. Walker Evans used this to heighten the sense of mystery in his 1974 photographs of ice-cream advertisements.

Blue has always been a colour associated with loneliness or despair (hence the blues).”

(Franklin 2016: 129)

The above examples are not exhaustive; rather, they get across the point that colour is one of the ‘tools of rhetoric’ available to the documentary photographer.

He also quotes Alex Webb, a photographer that I will be looking at in my next post, as saying: “Colour isn’t just about colour. Colour is emotion.” (ibid: 130, quoting Webb).

That’s all for this post – I just wanted to capture this somewhere!


Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.


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