The man who’s been doing Google Street View since before Google’s founders were born

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Lenox lounge vergara
Harlem’s Lenox Lounge as Vergara saw it in 1994 (left) and 2014 (right).
Image: Camilo José Vergara

Camilo José Vergara came to the US from Chile to study in 1965, and in the 1970s, he began taking photos to document the decay of inner-city neighborhoods. His favorite area was Harlem in New York, where he has returned to stand in exactly the same spots again and again, recording the changing storefronts and the rise and fall of buildings. (A good archive of some of his work is at Invincible Cities.)

Vergara in Harlem in 2006.
Vergara in Harlem in 2006.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

On Tuesday (April 22) at the New York Public Library, Vergara gave a talk about his recently published book, Harlem: The unmaking of a ghetto. I asked him how he felt about Google Street View, the building-by-building photographic archive in Google Maps. He answered that it was an important and useful tool. “Some of my friends have called me the first Google Street View,” he said.

But if Camilo Vergara was the first Street View, Street View yesterday took another big step towards becoming the next Camilo Vergara. Google added all its archival images—the sum total of all the passes its camera cars have made since the service launched in 2007. So you can now find a place and see what it used to look like:

Lenox Lounge as Google’s Street View car saw it in 2007 (left) and 2013 (right).
Lenox Lounge as Google’s Street View car saw it in 2007 (left) and 2013 (right).
Image: Google

Google, of course, did not even exist when Vergara started taking photographs; its 40-year-old founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had not even been born when Vergara started taking photographs. But a few years from now, will a future aspiring Vergara look at Street View, shrug, and put his camera away?

Vergara told me he doesn’t think that will happen. Street View blurs out human faces for privacy purposes, which means even statues and advertising posters can be marred, and Google’s camera car doesn’t wait for a truck idling in front of a storefront to move. The images on a professional camera are far sharper than those Google uses. Moreover, Vergara said, there’s no substitute for the human photographer who deliberately chooses and frames each shot.

Maybe so. But 40 years from now, Street View or its equivalent will be capable of all kinds of inconceivable wizardry. All cameras will shoot with as fine a resolution as the human eye is capable of detecting. And the extraordinary labor of love and immersion that it takes to document four decades of a neighborhood’s evolution may be reduced to no more than a handful of gestures on whatever kind of interface we’re all using then, and a few seconds of brute computing power.