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Peter Kruger

3 June 2021

Going by the IG name "Empty City", one can safely guess what Seattle-based photographer Peter Kruger shoots. His style aims to capture film-like scenes devoid of people, often with a focus on industrial locations. With raised shadows and subtle colour grading, the photos have a look that is both stylised yet sympathetic to the subject in question.

What's your backstory?

I grew up outside of NYC, a kid of the 90s and 2000s. I was into technology, design, and aesthetics and was lucky to be surrounded by people who encouraged it. I lived in London for a year as a teenager and it was a year where I had more freedom than at any point before. It was the first time I got to really go out and explore a city on my own, day and night. I really enjoyed biking around the city, seeing all the small scenes and different neighborhoods. After college I moved to NYC, got into photography, and started biking around the city taking photos. Now I live in Seattle with my wife and two huskies and have been enjoying exploring everything great about the other coast.

How did you first start out in photography?

I started exploring photography after college. I was fortunate to receive a D40x as a gift and took to it pretty quickly. I used the flickr community at first as a way of finding inspiration and feedback. Doing the work for a course at the School of Visual Arts in NYC was a great help as well. As part of the course, we had to take 500 photos per week and share 10-20 every class. To make the number I started riding around on my bike with a camera and tripod after work to get photos. In the second week, I stopped on the Union Street Bridge and took this photo (Brooklyn Ether). It was a distinct moment for me. When I got back to my computer that night and loaded up lightroom, I saw a different kind of subject in that photo, a different kind of light. That was the beginning of the Empty City style for me.

Brooklyn Ether

Where do you draw inspiration from?

My mom subscribed to some art magazines when I was a kid and I remember going through them to find classic US western landscape paintings like those by Edgar Alwin Payne to cut out and put up in my room. Those scenes felt so big to me and I think had an impact on how I see scenes today. There were other artists too; I remember loving the moods and scenes that Edward Hopper painted, the perspectives and colors of David Hockney, and the street-focused style and playfulness of Keith Haring's work.

These days I find a ton of inspiration from other photographers as well, beginning with instagram's community of night photographers. There is such skill in the world and it's amazing to be able to so easily see how others use it and share it. As far as more professional photographers, Todd Hido is one of my favorites. I also enjoy Edward Burtynsky and the amazing bigness in his landscapes. If you haven't seen the documentary "Manufactured Landscapes" based on his series, make sure to watch it soon.

There is also a lot of great aesthetic work coming out of smaller communities like vaporwave and others. I've been following some feeds focused on liminal spaces and I'm really looking forward to incorporating that kind of sense of space more into my photos.

Finally, music is another big part of my inspiration. I always have a soundtrack playing when I go out and explore for the Empty City series, and really let things melt away and try to become engaged in the moment and place. It helps me see the surroundings in a different way that resonates with this style of photography. When that happens it almost feels like the scenes find me and my role is just to capture them.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Empty City series?

For the Empty City series, it's a really narrow subject matter. The focus is night scenes without people, generally with some kind of industry, commerce, or infrastructure. There are a few shots where people make it in, but in those they're not subjects but rather components of the scene as a whole. With this series, I'm trying to create scenes you'd find in a film or story, without the subjects. The photos at their core are landscapes, so the goal is for the subject of the photo to be the scene as a whole.

In terms of other work, I like to take a number of natural landscapes while on hikes and roadtrips here in the Pacific Northwest. The often foggy, and always mossy and green forests here demand that you spend some time behind the lens when you're out in the wilderness.

Are you an impulsive or planned shooter?

Probably mostly impulsive. I cruise around the city on a bike or e-scooter and wander into different neighborhoods. I try to connect with the surroundings to the point where you begin to see how light is falling in certain spots and the details that create a scene. I've found that being on a bike or scooter makes building that connection a lot easier. You're going at a more moderate pace and you can almost feel yourself become a part of the scene as you get the wind in your face and the smells of the air. I also try to have some music playing to help augment the mood, which helps make the right scenes a bit more easily noticed too. You can just get in the zone and the scenes begin to almost call you over to them. It makes the whole experience and process really enjoyable.

I will plan shots sometimes though. Typically I'll go past something on an errand or some time I don't have my camera or it's the totally wrong light and I'll make a note to head back there when the light/weather is right for it.

How do you achieve the look in your photos?

Fundamentally it starts with taking a photo of the right scene with the right light. I've always thought of the photos in the Empty City series as movie scenes without people - where the subject was the way the light is interacting with the scene in a way that implies a narrative to the viewer. Getting that look in the photo really starts with getting the composition and general look right in the camera when it's taken.

I shoot with the highest quality RAW setting since it affords the most flexibility when editing. For this style, it's important to shoot in RAW and a high bit setting because the detail in the dark scenes and shadows gets lost quickly. I will often underexpose a bit too since it's way easier to pull up shadows than to mitigate issues with blown highlights.

I use Lightroom for all my editing and will start generally with color balance, exposure, and tone adjustments to balance the photo a bit. I'll use the sliders and also the curve to fine tune. I don't really have a set way how it happens since each photo is a little bit different. I generally know the look I'm going for and try to chase it. Once I get the levels right I spend some time color grading. I used to avoid split toning in my earlier photos, but lately I've been using that tool and the more recent color grading tool. It works well as a tool to really dial in the look that a given scene needs. It's also helpful when there are colors in a scene that are a bit off for whatever reason. Once the color and tones are set, I'll do some noise reduction and sharpening if necessary and then do some texture and clarity adjustments as needed. I might also add a subtle vignette to some photos to help focus the scene. Once everything looks good, I just export it as a jpg.

Before and after editing

What advice would you have for people getting into photography?

This question got me thinking and I went back through my earlier photos. There was a clear inflection point when I took the summer course I mentioned earlier at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. That forced me to: take my camera everywhere, go out more often in the evening for photos, and learn to see the scenes I like to take in more places. So if you're starting out, take a truckload of photos all the time. In this case, quantity can help bring about quality.

The other piece of advice I got at that time was the reminder that when taking photos, you're not taking photos of the objects (even though you are), but rather, you're capturing the light bouncing off those objects. I think that piece of advice was special. It did end up helping my photography, but it did something much more impactful, it helped me begin to see the physical world and scenes a bit differently and with more depth. That's something I've appreciated every day beyond photography, because looking at the world that way makes everything around you more interesting.

My last piece of advice is to go out and try to find as many photos and other works of art that are inspiring and spark that drive to create. We're all here to make art and encourage each other.

How has COVID-19 affected your photography?

Even though my photos are a very solo activity, COVID-19 has affected it a bit. I think there is a general reduction of comfort during a pandemic and that feeling of discomfort manifests itself when out taking photos. I tend to stay in areas a bit shorter these days for some reason. Though it does seem like things are a lot more still and empty these days, which means it's easier to find scenes when out. Considering this is the new reality, I'm trying to see if I can use that feeling of discomfort to an advantage and have it come through in the photos in a meaningful and hopefully aesthetically positive way. But yeah, I won't miss this Covid era.

Whas are your thoughts on Instagram as a photography platform?

I prefered instagram when it was just a chronological feed, but I know that Facebook is gonna Facebook. Honestly, I don't pay attention to it that much. I know there are a ton of tactics to increase perceived engagement and all that, but that's not why I'm here. I've been taking this style of photography for over a decade now and just enjoy sharing them. The fact I can find other photos and photographers that inspire me and people who enjoy my photos on instagram is really all I'm looking for out of the platform. One helpful thing is that I've limited the Empty City account to following only certain styles of photography and that makes being in the account far more enjoyable than my personal account.

I was on Flickr back in 2008-2011 or so and I thought it had a really good community if you got into some of the local scenes. I met a ton of photographers through Brooklyn groups and we would go out for photo events almost monthly. I'm still friends with a number of them to this day. I haven't yet found Instagram to have that kind of positive real-world, community-building impact, but maybe it's there and I just haven't found it.

What are some of your hobbies outside of photography?

I like going on hikes and weekend road trips. It's great to explore the PNW through the lesser travelled areas and explore the natural beauty the area has to offer. My camera is always with me when I do this and I take a lot of natural landscape photos. There is something about being out in nature that's naturally energizing for the creative process.

Any final comments?

Thank you for this interview; it's an honor to be alongside these talented and spectacular photographers. I can't wait until we're past Covid and we can go out and collaborate more freely again. I'm looking forward to continuing to create with all of you.

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