Street Photography Without People

Posted by on Mar 22, 2014 in essays, Street Photography | 3 Comments
Street Photography Without People

When most of us think of street photography, we imagine people in a public places with nothing particularly important going on. It’s the play on ordinary realities, using unposed actors who are oblivious to the drama they have been placed in. When done well, it’s a wakeup call to what we have been missing while engrossed in our busy lives. We are a society that has little time to observe and appreciate the subtleties of our everyday existence. Sometimes street photography is documentary, other times a lie, and usually a little of both. The photographer deliberately twists the subject matter to his point of view. This doesn’t necessarily mean the photographer wants you to see things his way, he just wants you to have room to explore on your own. A photograph might look like reality but it’s only a piece of a brief moment in time. It is flat, silent, has no odor, ignorant of everything outside the frame, and sometimes colorless. Street photography is about triggering a reaction and not showing you something. It’s about how something looks photographed and not what is photographed. It’s about ambiguity and asking yourself “why?”

“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.” – Man Ray

Everything that's true about shooting street photography can be done without including people. Animals, inanimate objects, or a scene with remnants of humanity are all viable alternatives. The trick is to show your subject has human characteristics and a soul. Although portraying human characteristics can be challenging, the act of shooting the photograph doesn't have to be. Inanimate objects are usually sitting still so you have all the time in the world to compose and play with your camera settings. They also don't mind having their picture taken so you're not intruding on someone's privacy. Below are a few examples of street photography without people.

Like Humans Do location: Washington, DC date: February 2012

Ladies fashion boutique window display in Georgetown. My framing, point of view, and processing most likely don't represent what the store manager had in mind. Apocalyptic might more accurately describe this photograph. I took this scene and made it my own. Reality has little to do with how an image looks.

Sweet Dreams location: Taiwan date: February 2013

Karaoke bar entrance is graced by a provocative image of scantily clad young ladies. The truncated Chinese characters across the top say welcome. A self appointed watch dog sleeps with one eye open.

Green With Envy location: Washington, DC date: December 2004

I took this photograph about 10 years ago and still find it fascinating. The architectural detail of a soldier was part of the original wall design. A weed appears before his very eyes and all he can do is watch. For me, the selective desaturation works on an artistic level rather than just for visual impact.

Incidental location: Taiwan date: February 2014

Containers of vegetable seedlings for sale. The complementary colors and composition are almost to good to be true. I observed but had no hand in creating this art.

Enjoy The Show location: Washington, DC date: July 2012

Ladies activewear apparel ad with Capital Bikeshare station in the foreground. I assume the advertisement location was chosen because of the bicycles. Does this also encourage people to ride bikes? I can't help but wonder. The bikes certainly do look entertained by the advertisement. Reminiscent of humans watching the sliver screen.

Privacy Lost location: Washington, DC date: March 2014

The ad campaign "Seniors Are Watching" was created by Coalition for Medicare Choices. They are urging Congress to protect Medicare Advantage from additional cuts. For me, this documentary image depicts the world we live in today. The collection of our cell phone and online activity has become big business and isn't going anyplace soon. Surprisingly, there is no collective outrage over this lost privacy.

The Parking Attendant location: Washington, DC date: June 2012

Strikingly obvious profile of a human face. I wonder how many people walk past and never notice. It's much easier to identify with all the detail outside the frame removed. Maybe he is enjoying what spring has brought.

The Curious One location: Washington, DC date: August 2013

Modern street lights that come alive at dusk. Illuminating streets and sidewalks until dawn. Casting shadows of those who pass by. For a moment, they appears to be more than fixtures.


  1. Alice Arnold
    April 8, 2014

    Enjoyed the photos and the commentary. I teach art at ECU – East Carolina University in Greenville, NC.

    Have fun . . .

  2. Peter Cane
    September 21, 2014

    As a photographer living here in DC, I loved the image of the streetlights, great job.

  3. Lev Tsimring
    March 20, 2015

    I was asked to give a lecture about street photography at a local photography club (which I gave yesterday night), so I came across this essay and enjoyed reading it so much, I put a long quote from it on one of the slides (with attribution, of course). Insightful and poetic writing, and those photos without people are also awesome.



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