Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?

I need to clarify some thoughts about the presence of people in street photos by asking: “Are people really necessary?”

I’m firmly of the belief that anyone embarking on the artform of street photography must concentrate on taking candid shots of people in public places. To do otherwise is to shun the basic principles of the genre and revert to being a general photographer whose portfolio includes flowers, trees, portraits, landscapes and more or less anything that makes a good picture.

However, I’m open to other ideas and I’ve recently been reading Michael Ernest Sweet’s admirable e-book “The Street Photography Bible.” In this he takes delight in quoting the Wikipedia definition of street photography, which includes the phrase: “The subject can even be absent of any people…”

The Wikipedia definition goes on to say that the image can depict a place “…where an object projects a human character or an environment is decidedly human.” In other words, the photo need only evoke a human presence; there is no need for the street photographer to include human beings in the image.

Maybe there’s no necessity for a street to be present, either.

The other day I was browsing some aerial shots of southern England with its manicured fields and network of roads and it occurred to me that nothing in the landscape looked natural. Over thousands of years the entire terrain has been carved up, worked and reworked, crops planted and harvested, houses constructed, destroyed, and reconstructed. Not a spare corner remains untouched or unmanaged.

An aerial picture of southern England is not a street photo, but it fulfills all the criteria of the Wikipedia definition.

I take Michael Ernest Sweet’s point that some photographers who are recognised specifically as “street photographers” — notably Daidō Moriyama — have shown images in which people are completely absent, but I’m still not persuaded by his arguments.

What Moriyama offers us is not individual photos but an entire experience: a vision of the teeming night life of Tokyo and Osaka. He collects his work into books and exhibits, into mixes and remixes. He leaves us with an abiding impression of life in the raw, of survival against the odds. In such an oeuvre, a few images need to be devoid of people, otherwise the cacophony of voices would be too exaggerated and would drown each other out.

So yes, Moriyama has photographed, as Michael Ernest Sweet says: “signs, posters, dogs, cats, mountains…” At this point I have to remind everyone that Moriyama is not a self-styled “street photographer.” It’s the world that has categorised him as such. A better epithet would be “artist” — an artist who reacts to the life around him and who finds ways of pinning it to the page.

Moriyama is closer in spirit to Japanese writers like Kafū Nagai than to many street photographers. Kafū wrote masterful descriptions of the same disreputable areas frequented by Moriyama. He was also responsible for my all-time favourite quotation: “…the world has become a most inconvenient place for people who walk in the shade.”

I certainly agree that many inanimate objects show an intimate relationship with human beings and can therefore become a subset of street photography. My featured image (at the top of the page) goes a little further in picturing some bar stools and an actual representation: a wooden figure of a human being.

Are inanimate objects the proper subject of street photography? Of course not. Like Moriyama’s signs and posters they may often be intrinsically interesting and could well form the material for a book or an exhibition, perhaps even without any pictures of human beings. I recommend (in my “100 Top Tips”) that street photographers turn their cameras on such objects from time to time. But our main focus has to be on people: their interactions, their emotions, their lives.

I once created a photographic project on religion as practised by ordinary people in Thailand. As you can imagine, it’s full of temples and worshippers, monks and supplicants. Yet one of my favourite images from it is this one (below) of the simplest possible shrine: a street vendor’s incense burner on top of a wooden stool. I saw it standing in a shaft of sunlight and felt moved to take the photo.

In a collection of other works — mainly photos of people but including some magnificent temples — the humble stool takes on a noble character. I suppose you could call it a “street photo in spirit,” and it was through taking this kind of shot that I decided to focus on the life of the street rather than on those more spectacular scenes which usually attract the photographer’s eye.

So in answer to the question: “Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?” I would have to say: “Yes, if you’re creating a body of work that needs inanimate detail to complete the story.” But please make people your main subject, otherwise you’ll merely be a still life photographer. You might as well stay indoors!

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