Head-On Collision: Photography Legends Test Drive Google Glass
Elliot Erwitt and Bruce Gilden are street photography legends who use Leica cameras and black and white film as their weapons of choice. When they meet Google Glass for the first time, it feels like a head-on collision between old masters and new technology.
On Monday, sales were discontinued of the Google Glass Explorer version, which had a pricetag of $1,500. And good riddance, too. The prototype had been riddled with problems like short battery life and complicated handling. Later this year, Google plans to sell a totally overhauled consumer version, at a lower price and with longer lasting batteries. Development of the new product is being overseen by former Apple executive Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod.
Google is not alone in its efforts. Headmounted displays proved to be all the rage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.
Could these headsets, with their tiny, unobtrusive cameras, change the way we perceive the world in the same way Kodak cameras did a century ago, with candid photography becoming easier than ever before? Could they usher in something that we might call, for lack of a better word, wearable photography?
We asked two masters of candid street photography, Elliott Erwitt and Bruce Gilden, to give us a glimpse of the future as the legends tested Google Glass.
Bruce Gilden fiddles nervously with his glasses on his first day as a photographer without a camera.
With his full, white beard, green army jacket and sneakers, Gilden looks a little out of place amid the throngs of suits and Prada outfits here on New York's Upper West Side. Gilden has a world-famous body of photography to his name, but that isn't much help to him today. For the next couple of days, he will be trying out Google Glass, the headmounted display with a built-in miniature camera lens.
"I look like a damn cyborg," Gilden grumbles. A monitor barely bigger than an M&M glows in front of his right eye, where the camera lens is also located, all of it reinforcing the impression that Gilden might indeed be part man and part machine. "I can be a glasshole for Halloween," he grouses. The term is an epithet for Google Glass wearers in San Francisco, where they are reportedly much hated.
Gilden arrives at Elliott Erwitt's studio. The door opens to reveal a stooped man in a lilac-colored shirt, his eyes at once mischievous and sad. Erwitt is likewise a world-famous photographer -- the master of street photography, some say.
"You're 86 and I'm 68, like mirror images," Gilden declares. Erwitt smiles and says nothing. He once commented that the whole point of taking pictures is so that you don't have to explain things with words.
These two photographers have known each other for about 20 years. Both work for the photo agency Magnum and wear the same gray sneakers. And yet they could not be any more different. Erwitt is the patient observer, Gilden the grandstanding go-getter. Together, they have more than 100 years of photographic experience.
Today, they're meeting to discuss a new project. Are cameras hidden on the photographer's body the future of street photography? Google Glass' eye-tracking camera could make it possible to take the most unobtrusive, true-to-life pictures imaginable. Or it could be used to spy on unsuspecting people.
It's a head-on collision between old masters and new technology. Both Erwitt and Gilden prefer black and white analog photography, but now they're being asked to swap their Leicas for these absurd glasses. Gilden jerks his head back like a chicken gulping down food and says, "Okay, Glass, take a picture." The device follows his command instantly. But the photographer finds the jerky motion painful. "All this twitching is going to give me a seizure," he says.
So far, this early version of the data glasses, the so-called Explorer version, has been used almost exclusively by programmers developing apps for them. But the competition hasn't been idle, and companies such as Huawei and Sony are at work on similar products. Google Glass, meanwhile, is still just a prototype in beta, and it's likely to be a while before the product really catches on, perhaps initially for use by specialists such as engineers, surgeons and laboratory technicians.
And yet even in their unfinished state, these photo-taking glasses may afford an initial, if perhaps blurry, glimpse into a future where not a single moment must remain undocumented, as tiny cameras become capable of nestling closer and closer to the body, built into watches, glasses, necklaces or plastic clips. The Google Glass Explorer Version will soon go the way of all technology and land on the shelves of tech museums, next to the original, 100-year-old Leica camera. But the trend they stand for will continue as the pioneering devices slowly become classics, then museum pieces: ever easier, ever more candid photos.
The test run is starting. Bruce Gilden makes his way through the crowds on Fifth Avenue, his old hunting grounds. Gilden, who as a child wanted to be a boxer, instead fought his way to fame on these unyielding sidewalks by taking portraits of strangers. His preferred method: jumping out at his subjects like a tiger pouncing on its prey, using his camera with its harsh flash to immortalize them from an arm's length away. His final product: unvarnished snapshots direct from daily life. The art world rejoiced over Gilden and in 1998 he was honored with membership in Magnum.
The new wearable photography technology, on the other hand, affords an opportunity to take pictures secretly, which is not at all Gilden's thing. There -- a woman with a bitter gaze and a lot of makeup, just the sort of subject Gilden likes. He snaps his shot. "I just took a picture of you," he calls after the woman. She doesn't even notice. Taking and exhibiting pictures of strangers is legal in New York, falling under the auspices of freedom of speech and artistic freedom. In Germany, with its obsession about privacy rights, though, this right may soon be curtailed.
Gilden is zigzagging through the throng, constantly engaging strangers in conversation, doing photography as a contact sport. A driver leans, bored, against the side of his black limousine. Gilden walks right up to him, adjusts his glasses, quirks his finger, done. The chauffeur, too, didn't notice a thing.
Gilden's photographs project the insolent attitude of a street urchin. He grew up in New York's Williamsburg before the neighborhood was fashionable, with a father who wore heavy rings on his fingers, kept a cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth and conducted opaque business deals in his used tire store. Bruce played basketball, the dirtier the better, winning was what mattered.
The crowd flows around him like a raging river. "They all look alike. New York is getting more and more boring," he says. "There, that homeless guy has an interesting face, but I don't want to expose him. Hey, that woman over there, her makeup makes her look like a clown. Or her, back there, she's perfect."
He steps into the woman's path. He introduces himself: "I'm Bruce Gilden. I'm a famous photographer." She nods. "If you believe that, I'll tell you another one." She laughs. "No, no smiling" he says. He puts his hands at the nape of her neck and angles her face a bit to the side and down -- after all, using Google Glass leaves both his hands free -- and the woman allows him to do so. "Great, that doesn't look posed at all," he says, and snaps his picture.
"The street is a stage and the passersby are actors," he says. "But this is my play and I'm the director here." The woman thanks him effusively. "Most people love attention," Gilden says afterward. "I just made her day."
An Invisible World Star
Gilden's colleague and antipode Elliott Erwitt takes a different approach. He shuffles across the street from his apartment to Central Park. Passing dogs often catch his eye, since he's still mourning Terry, his mutt who died a couple months ago.
Erwitt is an invisible world star, an artist who disappears behind his pictures. His warm-hearted snapshots of dogs and people are widely known, and he publishes a new photo book nearly every year. He's been taking photographs for 70 years. "Most editors think I died years ago," he says, and smiles.
Erwitt doesn't talk much -- in fact, he's never talked much -- but the little he does say tends to hit home. He, too, is testing out the Google Glass camera on familiar terrain. Couples, passersby, a dog, a photograph, a smile. Then he slips off and continues on his way. A small poodle appears in front of him and Erwitt bends down to arrange the background composition around the dog. Then there's the sudden sound of a loud honk and the dog jerks around with wide eyes. Erwitt snaps his picture.
Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928. His parents, who were Jewish, had fled there from Russia. He grew up in Paris and Milan, with the family speaking Italian. When World War II broke out, the family fled again, this time to the US. At the age of 13, Erwitt received a dog and a camera, two presents that would alter the course of his life. Drafted into the army in 1951, he served as a photographer in Germany and France. The legendary Robert Capa then invited him to join Magnum. He took photographs for advertisements, newspapers and exhibitions, as well as shooting documentary films, all the while remaining always curious, always skeptical.
'Like Eating Soup with a Fork'
It's time to take stock of the preliminary results in Erwitt's studio directly on Central Park, a darkened room that looks like a shrine to the history of photography, with enormous prints on the walls and cabinets full of originals. Their freshly taken images are downloaded on a computer, they sit down in front of the screen to evaluate their catch of the day. They are surprised at the resolution of the 5-megapixel camera.
Does the Google Glass camera allow him to get closer to his subjects? "No, the opposite is true," Gilden says. "It's got such a wide angle, far too much ends up in the picture." Erwitt nods.
"Besides, the screen is much too small, you can hardly control the frame" Gilden says. Erwitt nods.
Google Glass might work for email or GPS, Gilden says, but not for taking photographs. "It's the wrong tool, like eating soup with a fork."
"I often eat soup with a fork," Erwitt says. "If it's matzah ball soup." Both men come from Jewish families, where this traditional dish is popular.
"We barely had time to get to know this technology," Gilden explains. "If you put me on an island, I think after a time period I would figure out how to use it to its best effect."
"Manhattan is an island," Erwitt points out.
The room is a bit small for two full-scale egos, the two of them flirting and sparring with each other. And with the technology.
Gilden throws himself back into the fray. After half an hour, the rechargeable battery built into the glasses frame has run down, so a cable now hangs from the glasses, connecting them to a back-up battery. The right side of the frame is growing alarmingly hot. "I can use this to keep my fingers warm in the winter," Gilden proposes. Passersby turn around to watch and whisper when they catch sight of his cyborg look.
But the biggest obstacle is the fact that the glasses are only designed to take pictures in a horizontal format, whereas Gilden is considered a master of the vertical format.
Gilden is thirsty and takes a drink, then sets the bottle down behind him. A minute later, someone steals it. Then he notices the handsome young man behind him, in a suit and a tie and a wool hat, leaning unobtrusively against a traffic light and photographing Gilden with his smartphone. "I hate these beginners, that guy is sneaky, I don't like photos like that" Gilden complains. He calls over to the paparazzo and takes a picture of him. The two men photograph each other.
Gilden hates having anyone boss him around. It's one reason he became a photographer. Now these nightmare glasses are literally leading him around by the nose, forcing him into all sorts of absurd contortions.
After 40 years of working intensively with his manual Leica camera, Gilden could operate it blind. When he doesn't have it with him, he feels it like a phantom pain. Wearable cameras could allow everyone to experience that melding of body and camera. Because the devices are so small, they're operated with gestures -- a nod turns Google Glass on, a blink can trigger the camera shutter. The body becomes a part of the camera, with neck muscles and eyelids replacing the on/off switch and the shutter button. That may be a good thing for young nerds, but not so much for old men.
"All this nodding is giving me a stiff neck," Gilden says. Instead, he chooses to operate the glasses using a tiny button the size of a grain of rice on the right side of the frame, but it's far too small to be easily manipulated by Gilden's large mitts. Confronted with glasses developed by young geeks for young geeks, the director of the streets feels the device is dictating what he should do, rather than the other way around.
"I feel like a gorilla that's being made to eat with fork," he says. He's fed up. He scans the crowd and picks out a bald man. He addresses the man in broken Spanish and convinces him to stand still. Then Gilden twists himself around until the glasses are vertical instead of horizontal. Finally, he takes the glasses off and holds them in front of him. Like a camera.
"Don't move, man," Gilden says, then adds a little joke: "I had to hold still, too, 170 years ago when I had a daguerreotype taken."
Erwitt, too, is groping half-blind through the dawning of a new technology. He doesn't see well with his right eye, but the right side is where the Google Glass' display screen is located. "I try not to get noticed, but these glasses are much more conspicuous than a camera or a phone," he says.
Erwitt is familiar with the growing pains of new forms of media. He experimented with color film, and published a book of color photographs titled "Kolor". The "K" is an homage to the Kodak company, which revolutionized photography in the late 19th century with its family friendly cameras so simple a child could operate them and the slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest." When the Kodak factory in Rochester, New York, shut down, Erwitt made a pilgrimage there to say farewell. But even the newfangled headmounted camera, as he is still grappling with its novelty, is turning into a piece of legacy hardware from a bygone future.
"Google Glass might be nice for keeping a picture diary," he says. "It's good for pictures, but not for photos." He cuts the Bluetooth connection between the headmounted display and the cell phone on which he can review the pictures he takes. It makes him uncomfortable to think everything he sees there could theoretically also be viewed by others over the Internet. "My clients would use that to be constantly looking over my shoulder and giving me instructions," he says. "Which would mean less time and less work. Less freedom."
Wearable photography is bound to catch on sooner or later, at least in some niches, whether with Google Glass or other devices. The ubiquitousness of the tiny lens will make it possible for anyone to capture even the most fleeting moment, without having to dig out a cell phone or camera to do so.
In 1839, the painter Louis Daguerre gave the world the photograph, a new kind of image that seemed to paint itself, making it possible for even those without artistic talent to capture highly detailed pictures. Then came Kodak, which again radically simplified the process of creating images. Then came the spread of cell phone cameras, and now the next revolution in images is at hand. Not only are shutter buttons now superfluous, but spoken commands are as well. Users who wish to do so can operate Google Glass with the simple blink of an eye -- you blink, we do the rest. Scientists are already tinkering with integrating cameras into contact lenses.
This test run has demonstrated the democratic promise of wearable photography, as well as its limitations. It can't replace the most important elements of a good photograph, qualities such as patience, persistence and an ability to assert oneself -- against the technology, if necessary.
Erwitt has taken off the glasses and is holding them close to the ground, at eye level with a white poodle. He releases the shutter not with a spoken command, but by hand. As if the glasses were his Leica.
Above him, the leaves of a mighty plane tree rustle in the wind. "This tree is special," he says. Pause. "Terry liked to pee here."
When he still had Terry, Erwitt sometimes forgot to take his camera along when he took the dog for walks, and was sad when he missed out on capturing unique, natural daily life scenes he saw. Wouldn't it be comforting, then, to have a camera with him at all times, in his watch or glasses?
"No," Erwitt says. "The pictures I didn't take are the best ones."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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