Last February we traveled to Philadelphia to visit our son. I’ve been there many times but never to Center City. So we used this as an opportunity to stay in this very historic and interesting part of town. To make it a family affair, my daughter took the train from Virginia which gave us an opportunity to all be together for the first time in quite a while. This visit resulted in a photographic epiphany for me.
My best street photography opportunity was Sunday morning when my daughter was due to catch an early train. I walked with her 25 blocks or so to Amtrak station and planned to spend the morning doing street photography.
However the streets were empty except for handful of homeless people wandering about. I’m not a big fan of photographing the homeless without a reason, plus I have to be honest, I am a little shy about photographing on the street when I am the only person with the camera.
So I decided to limit myself by making photographs that do not include people. This became the genesis of my ongoing personal “No People” project.
The weather was really warm for February and the early morning light was beautiful. And my decision to make photographs without people was liberating. It enabled me to spend time working the scene without the worry of missing a “moment.”
It gave me the freedom to look for the best angle and light. I slowed down (something I rarely do shooting people), eliminated clutter and looked for elements that would make a boring building interesting.
Since then I’ve been studying sub-genres of street photography that don’t include people. I’ll share those with some examples here.
I’ve come to realize that street photos “without people” are still “about people” because instead of “photographing man” we’re photographing “the effects of man” or the things we leave behind. In a sense we’re recording the “Footprints of Man.”
Plus I’ve tried to include “No People” shots in my regular photo walks. And I made a few updates of my own.
We recently moved to Central Virginia, which was very hot during late August and Early September. Much too hot to walk mid-day with my thick northern blood. I learned quickly that I had to walk in the early morning around sunrise to avoid heat stroke.
That early in the morning the only people on the streets are dog walkers and small children going to school. Because it’s rarely a good idea to photograph other people’s small children (especially when you’re a stranger walking through a new neighborhood) I decided to use the opportunity to use the opportunity make some “No People” photos of things that capture my attention.
This gives me the ability to return to the same scene in different lighting and weather conditions and photograph it from different vantage points and angles. I’m often tempted to take a camera on these walks, but so far my iPhone 7 has been ideal.
Using only the phone forces me to use the same focal length throughout the series. I’ve been using only my iPad for minimal post processing using the default Photos app and sometimes Snapseed. So far I haven’t found the need for anything else.
Again, for this project I have focused only on making images of the effects of man while not including any people whatsoever. This can get a little tricky because people can pop into the scene unexpectedly.
Photojournalist Essdras Surarez, a master teacher in his own right, has been a big influence on me since I interviewed him earlier this year. He says to pay attention to the things that capture your attention because they are important. Then he says to envision the scene from different perspectives then position yourself capture it from them.
It takes time and practice but it makes the process more intentional with less spray and pray.
Following are some photos I’ve made recently with this approach all within a few square blocks of my new neighborhood. I’ve been careful to pay attention to the things that attract me and shoot them from different perspectives at different times.
This is a green space in the middle of a housing development near me. The gazebo in the distance shaped like a Japanese tori caught my eye immediately. Since then I’ve stopped to photograph it from a distance and up close in various lighting conditions. I still only scratching the surface which is something I wouldn’t think of walking the busy streets of the city. Lesson learned.
New housing is booming in our town and our neighborhood is part of it. Several builders have cleared many acres or forest to create hundreds of new home. It’s been very disruptive to the wildlife in the area (sniff), but that’s for another day.
This construction site provides a wealth of “no people” photographic opportunities especially on foggy mornings like this one.
I’ve always like the shapes and colors made by the backs of these houses near the green space above. But until this day it hadn’t presented any interesting photographic opportunities. I happened to be walking by just as the sun popped over a mountain to the east bathing the row in golden light. Mobile phones are excellent cameras in the right light. This was no exception.
Giving myself permission to make street photographs has made a big difference in how I feel about my own photography. Although I’ve been practicing it for quite a while, the realization is only beginning to dawn on me. This affects not just shooting without people, but in street shooting in general.
I would spray and pray, then cull through multiple images in search for a good one. Don’t get me wrong, I still do this but now I’m aware of the fact that I’m not seeing. After all, it’s a journey not a destination. But this time I feel as if I have a map.
This practice has enabled me to consider more closely what I’m photographing and why I’m doing it. I’ve recently noticed that I’m beginning to “see” what I’m shooting and to consider the relationship between the objects in the frame. When shooting people I’m better able to recognize their expression, gestures and interaction before I even lift the camera.
I’m sure most photographers do this by instinct. For me it’s been an important lesson, hard won, over a long period of time. I’m just scratching the surface but feel that I’m turning a corner. At the same time I’m deathly afraid that it might slip away. We’ll see.
All thanks to a walk in the morning.
In the next issue I’ll share some different types of street photography without people with examples from the masters and modern photographers.