Many of the most iconic photographs ever taken feature people as their subjects. But some photographs of empty spaces that are devoid of human life manage to freeze the echoes of human existence in a visually arresting way–and it can be difficult to understand why they capture our attention.
“My images are empty of people but they’re littered with the traces of human enterprise,” says the graphic designer and photographer Rudy Vanderlans, whose work evokes the melancholy of vacant parking lots and other barren California landscapes. “To me, they’re anything but empty.”
But what psychological impulse lies behind the documentation of spaces devoid of the people that normally traverse them? To find out, Co.Design spoke to scientists and artists to uncover what makes these images so compelling.
The aesthetic appeal of empty spaces has never been studied, but neuroscience has some clues. In fact, the impulse to take and ogle empty photographs may have something to do with a counterintuitive scientific fact: We’re wired to focus on people’s faces.
By tracking subjects’ eye movements when they look at photos, psychologists have shown that we’re innately attracted to images of faces and people. According to Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo who studies the impact of urban design on human psychology, whenever there is a human form in an image, the human eye is drawn to it more than any other feature of the image, impacting your psychological response to the image. “When you see a setting with other people, those people swamp your response,” he says. “We really zero in on the faces, especially in pictures.”
Ann Sussman, an architect and co-author of Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, has had similar results in her investigations. “In a sense, once people are in a shot, we can’t really ‘see’ the place for what it is,” she says. “Our brain, because of its evolution, will not let us do this.”
In December of 2015, Sussman and the writer Janice M. Ward set up a pilot study at Boston’s Institute for Human-Centered Design that aimed to better understand how people mentally process the world around them. They found that perception is innately “humancentric”: When tracking the eye movements of subjects looking at one image of Boston City Hall and its surrounding plaza, they found that people spent more than half of the time allotted to look at the image examining the other tiny, speck-sized human beings rather than the architecture.
For a photographer who wants to capture architectural scenes, where the place itself is the central subject, including a person can ultimately be distracting.
In his latest book Courts 2, the photographer Ward Roberts documented empty basketball courts in Hong Kong, Hawaii, Melbourne, and New York. Without the action of amateurs and aspiring basketball stars running, dribbling, and feinting through their after-school pickup games, the courts’ pastel colors cast a surprisingly serene glow. They hold the possibility of action in their empty air. But as Roberts wrote in Courts 2, this kind of effect couldn’t have been achieved with players in the shot.
“At the very beginning of the series, I shot a few images with someone playing on the field, and it just didn’t feel right,” he wrote. “It didn’t work. It broke up the composition and it felt visually distracting. In my work, I hate what I call ‘the full stop,’ which is when you look at an image and there’s one element that attracts all of your attention. It becomes the only thing that you can focus on.”
In Roberts’s case, “the full stop” is a human figure.
The photographer Chris Forsyth, whose series on empty metro stations portrays them as uncanny, otherworldly spaces, feels similarly. “I find when you have people in images–especially for architecture images, unless you take the time to place them perfectly and direct the image–[they] tend to look very cluttered in photos of public spaces,” he says.
Why does the human form disrupt the cohesion Roberts is aiming for? Why does Forsyth avoid people in his pictures of architectural spaces? “When you put a person in it, your brain won’t work that way,” Sussman says. “You see it, but you can’t experience it.”
Perhaps the desire for viewers to truly “experience” the subject of an image is what drives some photographers to focus their cameras away from people. Scientists believe that a blank architectural canvas may be more conducive to projecting emotions, memories, and fantasies.
Ellard, the neuroscientist, thinks that “mystery” may have something to do with the ability of empty images to draw a viewer in. But he doesn’t mean mystery in the sense you might imagine. “Mystery” is a concept in environmental psychology that refers to the mental sense that an image or setting has the promise of more information around the corner. Looking at a photo of a man-made space devoid of people may trigger this impulse–that there’s more to be learned about the depicted place, effectively drawing you into the image.
Ed Vessel is a neuroscientist focused on neuroaesthetics at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics–which is dedicated to understanding how people process aesthetic experiences. He believes a lack of people in a photograph may help viewers imagine themselves in the image, creating a potentially mesmerizing experience.
“Looking at a space where there are the telltale signs of human life but no humans, we do inevitably project experience into there, our memories, thoughts about what might be going on,” Vessel says. “It happens almost as time-lapse in our head–a full day passing in a moment.”
This kind of ability to project oneself into an empty scene might give a viewer a sense of ownership over the space itself, Ellard says. He cited the tendency for real estate agents to remove any personal affects when they show houses or apartments so that potential buyers can imagine the space as their own. “When we’re looking at spaces, vistas, we’re attracted to them. There’s a sense of wanting to feel ownership, possession of those spaces,” he says. “I wonder if it’s easier to feel attachment to a place when there aren’t other people.”
That’s certainly the case for the amateur photographer Richard Akerman. In a project called Last Person on Earth, he photographs public spaces caught in moments when no people are present. The rules? “No humans in photo. No cropping. No Photoshop. In general there should be no ‘signs of life’ in an area where you would normally expect to see lots of people.”
Using these very specific guidelines, Akerman has managed to capture the street of the New York Stock Exchange, the courtyard of the Somerset House in London, and even a scene at the Ottawa airport without a single person populating the shot. His trick? Patience and an eye for framing an image.
“I guess I was always thinking about the question of what the enduring space is, the underlying place–what is the place in the absence of people,” Akerman says. “It also makes it more directly my experience, rather than a collective experience. Having ’empty’ photos allows the viewer to have a more direct experience with the image. It strips it bare.”
In 1757, the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke published a treatise on an idea he called “the sublime”–a concept that transcends simpler ideas of beauty and instead refers to a moral, spiritual, or aesthetic experience that is so intense that it completely overwhelms the senses.
Vessel posited that large empty spaces like cathedrals or civic buildings can provoke this kind of reaction. Images of such spaces, similarly, may require the brain to imagine a space of such magnitude that the senses are perceptually overwhelmed. “There’s a representation in our head that’s trying to capture and represent the size of the space,” he says. “It might be that we’re representing the size of a space we’ve never been in. We’re creating a mental model of something very large and that sometimes also contains us.”
“Those sometimes take our breath away because they give us a moment to contemplate the history or the potential or the way that people might move through those spaces,” Vessel says. But something more vast than the space itself? The thousands, perhaps millions of human echoes–the impressions and memories and forgotten tidbits–that space has contained through its lifetime. If an image of an empty place can capture that, it may have caught the sublime itself.
In that sense, the Italian photographer Francesco Margaroli‘s images of desolate carnival grounds in his series Nowhere reveal traces of human life in transition. Scraps of litter border the edges of one photo; a hose lies sprawled in the foreground of another; a white big rig pokes its head into the frame of a third.
Margaroli put it like this: “If you photograph an absence, you also reveal the presence.”