The surreptitious shutterbug – Flip Side – industrial spies photograph prototypes

The surreptitious shutterbug – Flip Side – industrial spies photograph prototypes – Brief Article

Joe Queenan

Uh-oh, Bernd Rauh is back in the news. Surely you remember Bernd Rauh, the retired car racer who is now one of the world’s foremost prototype photographers? The guy who skulks around Bavarian forests scoping out shots of the newest car models while they’re still at the testing phase? The guy whose 1997 shots of German car engineers tipping over a Mercedes prototype actually resulted in the company taking the car off the market and sending it back to the shop? Yup, that Bernd Rauh.

The details of Rauh’s adventures were recently laid out in an article in The Wall Street Journal shedding light on the shadowy world of “car spies.” According to the paper, Rauh once spent several days concealed in a Detroit graveyard trying to get an up-close-and-personal shot of a new Chrysler. Generally speaking, these are not the kinds of shots one associates with graveyards in Detroit–or, for that matter, with Detroit. The article went on to say that Rauh was a major force in this little-known world, a well-respected pro whose photos “can make or break a new model.”

Sadly, the Journal did not go far enough in illuminating the semi-mythical world of prototype espionage. Although the best-known prototype photographers focus their attention on the automotive world, spies hauling down as much as $3 million a year can be found in many other industries.

“I once had to hide in a heating duct for three nights to get a shot of a cutting-edge LCD screen,” says Jack “The Human Annelid” McGuire, a Radnor, Pa., photographer who specializes in gadget photography. “The designers kept the prototype in a vault and only brought it out in the middle of the night. I had to wait until the Domino’s Pizza guy showed up before it was safe to crawl out and get a shot. After all that, the company went belly-up before it could bring the new model to market.”

Sven Torborg, a Swedish photographer, has a similar tale to tell. A few years ago, natural-foods enthusiasts in Burlington, Vt., began complaining that granola chips were too thick, “too hard to get your mouth around them,” Torborg recalls. “This was around the time that a lot of Baby Boomers were starting to get their first dentures, and rather than blame things on their false teeth, they took it out on the cereal manufacturers.

“Anyway, word got out that one of the biggest cereal makers was working on an oval-shaped flake. So I had to haul myself out to Michigan and sleep for three nights in a vat of oats trying to get a few shots. They got the shape right, but they could never get the same kind of crunchiness into the smaller granola flakes. The product never got off the drawing board and to this day, folks up in Vermont are still complaining about defective granola.”

Though few are aware of it, prototype photographers have been hired to take pictures of everything from surfboards to chutney jars to gyroscopes to rosin bags. Sometimes, misfortune occurs. Last year, when a French perfume company announced plans to market Eau de K-2, a fragrance partially distilled from ice chunks retrieved from the world’s second-highest mountain peak, two Belgian photographers hanging from two different helicopters tragically collided in mid-air. It turns out they were photographing the wrong mountain and the wrong ice chunks. Sadly, no one told them that French perfume makers generally design their fragrance bottles in France, not in the Himalayas.

How many photographers currently make a living doing this sort of work? According to Douglas Culligan, editor of Surreptitious Camera World, there are at least 75,000 freelance photographers working full- or part-time in this branch of the industry. “Redesigning your line of tennis shoes? There’s a guy out there with a spy camera taking stills of your prototypes, Culligan says. “Bringing out a different-size men’s magazine? You can bet someone’s got it on film. I’ve seen photos of everything from cutting-edge hamster treadmills to state-of-the-art orthotics. And then some.”

What attracts photographers to this admittedly unusual field? “Most guys will tell you that they love the thrill of the hunt, the travel and the cars,” says Culligan. “But my suspicion is most of them got into it because they thought there’d be lots of lingerie work.”

Joe Queenan ( is a regular columnist for CE.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Chief Executive Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group