Street Photography Without People
As the topic title says, we are going to have a look at street photography without people. A lot of the street photography at the moment is centred on people. People doing things out of the norm. People in the right light. People who have an interesting look. A majority of the work of the masters of Street Photography also contained a people element, but I think at that point there was more of a trend of telling a story and showing a snapshot of society. Maybe the trend of the moment of seeking out and capturing the weird and wonderful says something about us as a society in the modern era, but that is likely the topic for future conversations. But... Is there a need to have a person in a shot, or is it possible to shoot street work of high quality without shooting people?
This is also a topic that I have been requested to write on so that we can try and add some clarity to the expectations of one of the groups that I admin. APF Street Photography. We as admins of the group often have the hard task of playing the roll of Street Photo policemen. We are trying to help the members of the group understand what street photography is and isnt, and to be honest it's a hard things to do.
I think that the question of can a street photo still be a street photo without a person in the frame really goes back to trying to understand what street photography is. And I think that one of the easier ways to try and get an understanding of what street photography is, is to try and look at what it isnt.
Before I go here, I want to really spell something out. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and the next section of the post really is just my feelings on this topic. I am not trying to claim that this is the only way to view this topic, but it is my way. I have studied a fairly large number of street photographs and artists, so I can only base my opinion on these works and what I take away from them. If you have a different opinion to anything that I am about to say, then not only is that OK, it's actually fantastic, and I would like to hear what it is.
I have one more disclaimer that I would also like to make before we continue. The important thing in all your work is not if you are managing to meet a loose definition of a obscure and hard to define photographic genre. The important thing is that you take images of things that are of importance to you, and things that have meaning... This will shine through in the work that you do and I think this will also go a long way to helping you to fulfil some of the general boundaries that we are about to discuss.
In order to progress this discussion I think that we need to have a look at a couple of images that are clearly street, but don't have any people in them. I have already provided 2 of my own images that I feel fit the boat. The first image of the street art with the little girl throwing the paint on the wall clearly has a human element. The placement of the seat with he stripes on it sets the image off. It adds to the need to think about the compositional aspects of the shot and Think about why the seat was left there. The seat was no a part of the artwork on the wall, there were a lot of these seats in the area where the shot was taken, someone creative had just picked due the seat and left it where I found it. I thought that this was an interesting use of the sounding tools by someone, and made a nice image. Who knows, it might have been left there by some person who also took the same shot.
The top images of the tap and basin in the bathroom at a train station with the light cast off the wall through the roof as if it was the mirror that is missing from the wall. This is a little darker, and gloomy, but still has that human aspect to it. The dimly lit women's sign in the top of the image, just caught by the light sets the composition off Nd balances the framing.
I think that this brings us to one of the key points that need to be made here. If you are shooting street without people you generally have time up your sleeve. There are limited moving objects, unless you have a animal of some sort in the frame. This means that you have time to frame and compose your image well, you should have I've to set your exposure perfectly. There are no excuses and to be honest when I look at these sorts of images I am more critical of this sort of thing that I would be with an image with a fast moving, or multiple moving subjects.
Copyright Matt Stuart
Matt's image has this sort of surreal feeling to it. The eye that is required to see this sort of thing in the street is a special thing, and one that is developed through years working on seeing things that others simply walk past and don't give a moments notice. It leaves you asking if the trade worker that parked the skip there actually knew what he was setting up, and had a bit of a laugh about it, or if he too was so caught up in his daily routine task of dropping another skip for some other random person t fill it their junk, that he was also clueless to the set up that he was creating for Matt. But what it does in spades is leave you wondering these things. It has that human element. It strikes you as something that is plainly placed by a human interaction, be it thoughtless or not.
I am also not trying to say that the things you shoot on the street must just be made by a person either. I think that the answer is a little more philosophical than that. I think that the presence of a human must be felt in the images in order for them to fall into the street genre. I think that they need to be a representation of the reality, be that the normality or it, or the sometimes outright strangeness of it, that is modern society. They need to tell a story about life and people even minus the people in them.
This is where things like Landscape images, or Urban Architecture shots starts to withdraw from the genre of street. Sure, Urban work has a human element, but its in most cases lacking that story telling. It has great lines, and some great shadows and strong composition, but it doesn't tell a story of who we are or leave the viewer with that sense of humanity in the image.
Another example of one of my recent shots, this work without humans is something that I am coming to enjoy. Its a little more relaxing to shoot at times as you don't have that sense of confrontation that sometimes comes with capturing images of people candidly in the street. And this is a good lead into the next statement that I will make. We often talk about the need for street images to be candid in nature. As with many of these defining street discussions it's also a contentious topic. I am probably on the fence a little, I think that the artist should be allowed to have some form of control over the scene if it's going to help tell a better story to the viewer. But I don't think that a total set up shot has its place in street.
I think that this general statement should also hold true for images without people. A majority of the time you should aim to shoot things the way you found them on the street. Slight movements of pieces of the puzzle maybe, but you are trying to convey the story of the reality of the moment. The reality is not something that you set up using props and tools, it's things as you find them when you wander the streets. I also like to apply the same thinking to post production work. Black and white conversion and slight dodging and burning. Only adjustments that would otherwise be able to be made in the darkroom.
Copyright Dido Moriyama
Another very famous street artist that completes a lot of work without people is Dido Moriyama. I must admit that for me, some of his work takes the contrast element a little too far, and coming from me that's saying something as I am a massive fan of high contrast black and white. But his street work without people is in most cases simply stunning. And in a lot of ways Dido was way before his time with this sort of work. He is a passionate man and his body of work speaks for itself. He started working on a vision that he had and he followed that vision through his whole career, it's a amazing things to have achieved and one that he should be commended for.
Again, with this work we can see that even though there are not real live people in the examples that I have shown, there is still a social commentary to that I present in the images.
Copyright Dido Moriyama
Its that aspect of the images that have that classic feel to them that grabs me first. The gritty film grain in his shots is beautiful, and that organic feeling to the grain structure is seen due to the fact that so much of his work was shot at high ISO settings in low light situations. The depth of the darkness is something that I find appealing, and I think its this that when viewed as a set, speaks most to me in a lot of his work.
Copyright Dido Moriyama
I hope that this has helped at least express my views on street photography without people. Its almost an art forms of its own really, and I have a very soft spot for some of it. I don't know if this is due to my ties to studio work in my early years as a photographer , or what it is actually. But I hope that people are able to branch out and pay due justice to these types of images, as I sometimes wonder if they are images that are made often enough. They tell stories of the world that we live in, and speak to people about those ever decreasing quiet times in the street when there are not people around to share your vision.