Street Photography is usually seen as the portrait of mankind and human life in the city. The easiest way to portray this dense society is by showing them directly to the viewer. Therefore, Street Photography is very focused on faces and people to capture the atmosphere of a city. Some even go so far and disqualify Street Photography without people as part of the genre. Does this statement hold any truth and does a picture ultimately need at least one human explicitly visible to count as Street Photography?
The Human Element in Street Photography without People
I agree that Street Images need some form of life in them. Otherwise, I would see them as architecture or landscape photography most of the time. The reason why I chose Street Photography over the other genres is the human element that adds life to a scene. This short definition is not even comprehensive, since life can be added by animals as well. Therefore, I’d say a Street Picture only needs an element of life in any form for me to qualify as a Street Photograph.
The question is now if people need to be shown directly and openly or if they can be “present” in a picture in a more indirect way?
Telling a Story
Photography is all about telling stories in a single image. Instead of going the lengthy way to write text or show multiple frames to create a narrative, a photo should have the power to stand on its own.
To tell a story you don’t need to explicitly show the whole deal. Remember the shower scene of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”? The most terrifying part of the scene was, that we couldn’t see the obvious, but rather had to imagine what happened to that woman.
In the same vein, a photo can tell a story by showing small details that give hints and encourage the imagination of the viewer, instead of coming straight to the point. Street Photography without people is very well possible, but needs careful arrangement and a scene that still puts emphasize on life and isn’t “dead”.
Putting life into the Image
So how can Street Photography without people still be full of life and not another “dead” image from a boring structure? As already stated we elements that are either a symbol of life or show the human presence indirectly.
In big cities there are a lot of details that remind us of the presence of humans. In fact, it is pretty difficult to capture an image without showing the influence of people. Every car on the street is evidence for human life and suitable for a Street Photograph without people. Outside of complex technology like cars, you could include books, food or clothes. All of these objects give hints to the atmosphere and society of any given time.
A book lying on a dirty street for example could be the starting point of a great evolving story. What does the title may say about the former owner of the book? Is the book in good condition or in a rough shape? Are there any notes, sketches or details present that tell something about the reader?
As you can see, a lot of small details can lead to a bigger story that doesn’t need to show people explicitly in front of the camera.
Often it is more interesting to give some indications anyway. Street Photography without people is a great opportunity to practice your storytelling without directly revealing your ideas and directions. Some sort of element that makes the image come to life is still needed. These objects can be from simple crafted objects to high complex technology that is used by humans, or anything that hints at the presence of mankind. If these requirements are met your picture won’t look like a dead architecture shot or a “lost place”, but instead become a very special Street Photograph without people.