The essence of b&w reportage
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.
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.