More than a century ago, in New York City, Paul Strand began creating some of the earliest candid street photography. His goal was to capture people as they act in public, unaware of the observing eye. Street photographers have followed suit ever since, adopting every emerging technology available to minimize or conceal the barrier between photographer and subject.
Today, “I finally feel like my eye is a camera,” says Richard Koci Hernandez, an Emmy award-winning multimedia producer, photojournalist and professor of New Media. Earlier this year, Hernandez, known for his popular @koci Instagram account featuring noir-style street photos taken with an iPhone, entered Google’s #ifihadglass competition. He won, and began posting his wearable camera-made photos to his new account, @koci_glass.
Hernandez spoke to LightBox about his work, the newest tool in his arsenal and what it all means for the future of street photography. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve been doing street photography for 25 years. Tell me about your process.
Street photography for me is not so much about going out to hunt for pictures, but allowing them to come to me in my daily life. And to be honest, I’ve never been without a camera on hand ever since I first picked one up at 14. There’s something magical about it. I’m just the vessel, the conduit through which this or that photograph wants to speak.
Take me through the progression of cameras you’ve used.
My first camera was a Minolta range finder, then a Nikon FM2, then I went through the iterations of professional cameras. But I was always fascinated by alternate forms of cameras. I used to use a big 4×5 camera, and then I played around with some medium formats and then moved into plastic and toy cameras. I’ve also used a really huge 20 x 24 Polaroid Land Camera.
When digital cameras came along, I wasn’t a big fan. But I was a photojournalist and they were convenient for work. It was the same with the iPhone. The first version of the iPhone was great for news photography, which is why I first started using them. But I never incorporated it into my street photography. I didn’t feel the quality was quite there yet.
What’s it like when you go out shooting with Google Glass? How does the process differ from when you are using an iPhone or a camera?
It is jaw-dropping as a photographer to walk out with a wearable camera that’s almost physically and literally attached to your eye. Believe it or not, it’s just like wearing a pair of sunglasses, and it’s a lot less intimidating for subjects. Nobody has objected. Every now and then I’ll hear somebody whisper, ‘Oh, he’s got Google Glass.’ But nobody has stopped me or said ‘don’t do that.’
We live in a culture where we don’t look each other in the eyes in public all that much, and since the camera is near your eye, not a lot of people are seeing it. Street photography with Google Glass feels natural — and the science fiction level is very high.
Do you believe that Google Glass is really as revolutionary as some would like to think? Or does it have its limitations?
It’s revolutionary and a step in the direction of something like a contact lens sensor or an eye implant. It’s close to recording what your eye sees without any barrier, but it’s not there yet. There’s a lot of room to grow.
And photographically, there is a major hurdle holding. If you want to take a picture with Google Glass, it’s about a two-and-a-half to three-second process, and any photographer knows that’s far too long. I want to capture those decisive moments that are so fleeting and so quick, but it’s not allowing me to do that yet.
What about some of the recurring themes in your work — long shadows, umbrellas, fedoras — draws your eye?
My favorite film genre is film noir, so that’s my aesthetic. I’ve always loved the contrast of black and white imagery. I’m not a dark or mysterious person at all, but I love to capture that on film.
The darker my images, the more ambiguous they are, and I think a viewer can read more into them. Then it becomes more of a collaboration between the viewer and myself.
In part, my street photography is a reaction to my photojournalism. I spent 20 years as a professional photojournalist where my job was to shoot clear, concise, colorful stories filled with information. So my natural tendency is to run the other direction with my personal work and to make things muddy and ambiguous.
But I also try to insert some sliver of light or positivity. That’s my challenge, to take things that might be seen as foreboding and somehow transmit something that’s hopeful.
Your two separate Instagram accounts are visually distinct in nuanced ways. What do you think Glass does to your pictures?
It makes things a bit more real. I think the traditional camera allows for more creative expression, more ambiguity. Glass is very clean, very sharp, very pristine. It’s less open to manipulation right now.
Also, the field of view is completely different from what I’m used to. It’s a really wide-angle lens, and that’s not quite how I see the world.
But it is expanding my horizon; it’s making me think differently about timing, framing and composition with more diptychs.
Tell me about post-processing. What is your workflow like?
I take my images off of Glass and bring them into my iPhone and edit them there.
When you shoot with Glass, it automatically uploads all the images you make to your Google + account in private mode so nobody sees them except you (and probably Google, of course). Once they’re uploaded, you’re able to use some very limited post-production features that Google offers. But I have what I call a ‘heavy hand,’ — I really like to darken things up, to add some grit and grime. The traditional iPhone apps are more suited to that.
Do you think gradually people will become more guarded about how they act in public as they become more aware of the ubiquity of cameras?
Honestly, I’m a little fearful for the future of street photography. There’s a certain level of rightful paranoia, if you will, or skepticism about what the images are for. I think once people understand what you are doing, it makes you seem less like some weird person doing nefarious things with images. But I do think that wearables like Google Glass impact how people react to things, and I think subtly, psychologically, we’re going to see a general backlash, with people being afraid of being surreptitiously recorded. But it’s not going to stop me from doing what I do. I know my intentions as an artist, and really, I feel like a historian. My pictures aren’t for now, anyway. In my mind they are for future generations to look back and see how we dressed, how we acted, what we looked like years ago.
Richard Koci Hernandez is a national Emmy award-winning video and multimedia producer and worked as a photojournalist at the San Jose Mercury News for 15 years. In 2011, he was named an Assistant Professor for New Media at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
Eugene Reznik is a Brooklyn-based photographer and writer. Follow him on Twitter @eugene_reznik.