« Conceptual Street Photography | Home | Conover Street Photo in NYTIMES »

Peopled Landscapes

As an extension of Conceptual Street Photography, I recently saw a gallery show here in Atlanta that reminded me of an idea I want to try and define. The idea, not the show, is “Peopled Landscapes”.

Historically, street photography is about the convergence of people and the city. More often than not, one dominates. There’s a picture of a person within an urban environment, with the person being the dominant subject.

Occasionally, the city’s landscape and the people within it will combine forces to create an entirely new whole in which neither dominates. It’s not really a picture of the city, or a picture of people. It’s a peopled landscape! And “landscape” means they don’t have to occur in cities. In fact, most of the following examples probably fall-off street photography’s map, but that’s just because the map’s too small. Traditionally speaking.

The earliest example I can think is this one (found in everybook on the History of Photography) by Paul Strand. It’s street photography, but as a photograph it doesn’t prefer people over the cityscape. By perfectly balancing both, it depicts something else entirely.

strand
Paul Strand

The show I saw was Massimo Vitali. He takes large format pictures of people on holiday. It’s hard not to feel that his photographs exploit the “Where’s Waldo?” gimmick (I love that stuff as much as any ten year old!) but they’re incredibly fun to look at up close. Stolen glances between people connect. Narratives erupt.

massimo
Massimo Vitali

Somehow Vitali uses tiny apertures and fast shutter speeds with a big camera in a way that stops motion. Must be fast film! And in the prints I saw, there were many great moments. As wall pieces, I was surprised that they didn’t have much force from afar, apart from their own gravity. Their main strength is overpowering you with their size and then pulling you in, I guess.

For examples, there’s always the Kertesz pic on the cover of Bystander. Previously mentioned, Gus Powell has a fine one here:

Gus_Powell2
Gus Powell

Again, from Sternfeld’s American Prospects. (It’s within arm’s reach, E.)

sternfeld
Joel Sternfeld

Christian Patterson has one on his blog from Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, as well as one of his own:

Christian_Patterson
Christian Patterson

One of mine which teeters on being unpeopled:

.
Michael David Murphy

Let me try and describe what a peopled landscape might not be. Examples that fall off either end of the scale would be Koyaanisqatsi -style pictures of people on escalators, which are more about infrastructure of the megalopolis. Or Gursky’s party crowds, which lack the context of engaging backgrounds, as do Vitali’s party hordes. There are plenty of pictures online that depict “the solitude of the individual” within a cityscape, but that’s something else, as well.

Here’s how these pictures (good examples and statistical outlyers) might fall on a graph of this idea. # of people on the Y-axis vs degrees of familiarity/recognizability/intrigue of the background on the X-axis:

peopled-landscapes2
Yes, I drew this and it shows.

Where might one find these places? Vitali and Sternfeld show they needn’t be in a city, and they can be as much about the moment as any kind of street photography.

For flickr’ites, I’ve started a group for them. Other examples are welcomed in the comments. There are plenty of “people looking at Mt. Rushmore” photos that probably fit the bill (I think Greta Pratt has one), but the trick would be for the peopled element to be just as interesting as the background/landscape element. Chime in if you’re thinking of an example or two…

Next Week: Density

Tag: Wide Open