An Eye for the City: Philadelphia Street Photographer Karen Benson

Karen Benson has always been attracted to photography – and to the unusual.

16_05_06 1 Karen Benson Head Case(Karen photographed “Head Case” at the Chelsea Antiques Garage in New York City.  And,  yes,  there’s a lot going on in that box…)

It started when she was a child in suburban Delaware County.

“I loved magazines,  and we had lots of them in the house:   Life,  Look,  Vogue,  and National Geographic.   I spent hours looking at the photos.”

16_05_06 2 Karen Benson Carpet One(A little generational role reversal near 8th and Bainbridge Streets.)

 It intensified when she accompanied her mother on car trips through West Philadelphia to drop off her older brother at Girard College.

“I was fascinated,  especially by the people.”  she recalls.   “Men in red suits?   Not in the suburbs where I came from.

“I couldn’t wait to get into that other world.”

16_05_06 3 Karen Benson Strange Duo(“Strange Duo.”   First Friday street vendors in Philadelphia’s Old City.)


Karen headed to San Francisco after high school – dream destination of every 1960s baby boomer – then worked in Philadelphia for several years before getting her BFA in graphic design at the Philadelphia College of Art.

16_05_06 4 Karen Benson DC_9716(Karen aims her Canon SL1 on Bainbridge Street…although she still favors her trusty point-and-shoot Cascio Exilim.)

Among her teachers was celebrated modernist photographer Ray Metzker,  who often wandered Philadelphia’s streets with camera in hand.

16_05_06 5 Karen Benson Ladies Talking(“Ladies Talking.”   Karen caught these disparate pairs while leaning out her car window.)


Photographers have always been drawn to urban decay,  of course:   Back in the 1990s,  when we owned a gallery in struggling Asbury Park,  NJ,  we saw so many depressing “art photographs” of crumbling buildings there,  we wanted to hang ourselves.

But Karen’s subjects are more akin to rowdy weeds kicking through sidewalk cracks:   She captures the humor,  imagination and will to thrive that persist in even the toughest circumstances.

16_05_06 6 Karen Benson Prepare to Meet God(“Prepare to Meet Thy God” near Lehigh and Kensington Avenues.)

“I’ve always been attracted to creepy areas and to kitsch,”  she says.   “I struggle with accepting that about myself because I feel like I should be doing something more wholesome.

“But I don’t like slick-looking photos,  and I don’t make slick, technically perfect photos.  There’s not enough content there for me.”

16_05_06 7 Karen Benson Guitar Man(“Guitar Man” in Center City.)


One subject she frequently struggles with is street portraits.   About half the time, she asks for permission,  as she did on these occasions…

16_05_06 8 Karen Benson Rittenhouse Square     16_05_06 9 Karen Benson Two Smokers(“Rittenhouse Square Couple”, left,  and “Two Smokers” in Center City, right)

 Other times,  spotting the perfect moment,  she snaps first and asks permission later…

16_05_06 10 Karen Benson 2 Young Girlfriends(“2 Young Girlfriends” at the Quaker City Flea Market in Philadelphia’s Tacony section)

“It used to be easier to approach people when I was out photographing with a friend,”  she says of her now-solo rambles.

“Because of the Internet and everyone having a cell phone camera,  people are really paranoid about having their photo taken on the street.”

The most receptive?   Young people,  street vendors,  and corner musicians,  who enjoy being noticed.


But with her unique eye for quirky details,  Karen is never without subject matter.

16_05_06 11 Karen Benson Bored(“Bored” in Center City)

She particularly excels at “drive-by” shots from her car window…

16_05_06 12 Karen Benson Weird Billboard(“Weird Billboard.”   Karen captured this odd scene while navigating a traffic circle on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken)


And increasingly she captures scenes of South Philadelphia,  where she’s lived for 31 years…

16_05_06 13 Karen Benson Sweet Seedless(“Sweet Seedless” and…

16_05_06 14 Karen Benson Market Walker…“Market Walker”,  two perspectives on the ever-evolving Italian Market.)


Karen’s work has been exhibited at the Perkins Center for the Arts,  Main Line Arts Center,  Da Vinci Art Alliance,  Plastic Club,  Philadelphia International Airport,  Old City Jewish Arts Center,  and Martins Run.

16_05_06 16 Karen Benson DC_9719

And sometimes,  it even becomes part of the urban landscape:   In 2014,  she entered the annual Philly Photo Day competition.   Her winning image of Brickbat Books’ store window in South Philly was featured on a billboard in Northeast Philadelphia…

16_05_06 15 Karen Benson Winning Billboard DC_6888(That’s Karen with her winning photograph,  top,  displayed in an appropriately gritty parking lot.)

Who says that life doesn’t imitate art doesn’t imitate life?

All photos  (except for the portraits of Karen)  are copyright by Karen Benson.   Please do not use them without her written permission.   You can reach her at



6 thoughts on “An Eye for the City: Philadelphia Street Photographer Karen Benson

  1. Oh Wow! Kudos to you all. Karen, your work is spectacular. I love the photo of you! Kate, you and Dave are fab. Miss you all and as soon as I saw this I felt how very much I miss you all!!!! Much, much love and blessings,


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