Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A sense of where I was

This morning I took my camera, a new GPS receiver attached to its hot shoe, up to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, one of my favorite spots for photography. My goal was to see how well the GPS works in embedding geographical latitude and longitude, altitude and compass direction data into the digital files of my photographs at the instant I take them.

I stopped on the footbridge between the Botanic Garden's main island and the visitor center and took a quick shot (above) of the frozen channel between lagoons just southeast of the bridge. Then I went home and loaded the photograph file into my computer and called it up with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 software.

Quickly I clicked a button that took me over the wi-fi to Google Maps, and the result (considerably enlarged) is shown in the screen-grab illustration below. The green arrow marks the spot where I was standing when I took the shot. The red "A" symbol marks the point where the camera was aimed. The arrow and the symbol are absolutely dead on. [Later: I was mistaken about the nature of that "A" symbol. It simply marks the mailing address nearest to the arrow—in this case, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022. That's still useful.]

The point, of course, is that weeks, months and even years from now, I will be able to recover from the computer's memory, if not my own, the exact spot where the photograph was taken.

Soon I'll be riding the California Zephyr through winding canyons of the Colorado Rockies and twisting ridges of the Sierra Nevada, shooting madly out the train's windows in the service of gathering photographs for the upcoming e-edition of Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America. If all goes well, I'll be able to pinpoint (and describe) the location of every photograph with perfect accuracy rather than relying on my aging brain's ability to recall places and details.

Isn't that absolutely cool?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A sense of where you were

The device on top of the camera is a GPS receiver.

One of the tasks of a travel  author is to take decent photographs of the locales he is writing about, both as aides-memoires for the text and icing on the book's cake in the form of a photo section. Come March, the Lady Friend and I will be taking a ten-day-long trip to San Francisco Bay aboard Amtrak's California Zephyr primarily to gather new photos for the upcoming e-edition of my 1994 book Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America.

As a photographer I tend to be an indiscriminate shooter, pointing the camera at anything and everything that appears in front of me, hoping to remember later what the subjects were all about and especially where they were shot. Is that a photo of the Colorado River at Dotsero or was it Orestod? Does this abandoned rail yard lie at Soldier Summit or somewhere else?

Some years ago I took a shot of a beautiful rock formation from the open vestibule window of a private car behind an eastbound Zephyr, but never used it anywhere because I couldn't identify the locale. Only after seeing someone else's similar picture of the same place a few weeks ago did I realize that I'd captured the western approach to Castle Gate, Utah, one of the lordliest sights possible from American rails. It's going to go right into the e-book of Zephyr.

Of course I should have taken notes on the individual frames, as a good photojournalist should, but "should" and "did" have different meanings. As a writer I am careful to do due diligence, but as a photographer I just have been too undisciplined.

But now there is a brand new gadget in my photo bag that I hope will make life much easier for me.

It is a Pentax O-GPS1, an inexpensive ($200)  little GPS receiver that attaches to the hot shoes of the current crop of Pentax digital single-lens-reflex cameras.

The receiver records not only the precise latitude and longitude of the spot where the photographer was standing when he snapped the shutter, but also its altitude above sea level and the compass direction in which the camera was pointing.

The camera embeds in the digital file of the photo all this information, along with the customary "metadata" about the f-stop, shutter speed, sensor sensitivity (or ISO), lens focal length, camera make and model, etc.

When I upload the photo files into my computer, I can use special geotagging software to find their precise locations on Google Earth or a similar mapping site. Being able to locate on a map the exact spots where I took my shots is going to be an enormous help.

That is, if the device works as I hope it will. I don't yet know if it will lock on to at least four satellites from the windows of a train speeding at 79 miles an hour, or if it can lock on from deep in a canyon.  We'll find out in February, when the Lady Friend and I will take Amtrak's Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shot in the dark

The biggest problem I've run into while updating my 1994 book Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America for ebook publication this spring is tracking down the old Amtrak train crew members the book celebrates.

I rode the California Zephyr with a dozen of them and interviewed another dozen or so in crew bases and at stations. That was in 1991, more than 20 years ago.

The idea is to tell "Where They Are Today" in a long epilogue written for the new edition.

So far I have located ten crew members and station personnel, plus two civilians also featured in the book. But there are seven to go, and despite my best efforts they are elusive.

Part of the problem is my lack of resources. If I were wealthy, I could hire a skip-tracer private eye to do the magic they do on television cop shows with computers and supergeeks. But no, I've had to rely on free Internet tools available to me, such as

The trouble with these Internet resources is that they are at bottom commercial ones and naturally want to be paid. They may find people with the same names (and ages) as the ones you're looking for, but more often than not the information they display is old and outdated (the phone numbers tend to be out of service) and if you check the box to see what the most recent info might be, you get a page asking for money first. A couple of times I've paid, but to no avail.

Of course some of the old crew members I have found have been helpful—they remember that So-and-so moved to this locality and here's his phone number, but it's ten years old. Often checking a local phone directory for that locality yields a number of identical names, and a couple of times just eliminating them one by one finds the man or woman I'm looking for.

What about Amtrak's media relations and personnel people? Won't they help? I have asked, but they seem to be extremely busy as well as perhaps overextended—right now the national railroad is streamlining its management ranks by downsizing with buyouts and the like. I doubt that they have the resources to help out writers of old forgotten books.

And so here's a shot in the dark—these are the old crew and personnel from 1991 I'm still trying to find:

Reggie Howard, train chief based out of Chicago, now returned to sleeper service
John Davis, chef, based out of Chicago
Altagracia Romo, food specialist, based out of Chicago
Noel Prell, lounge car lead service attendant, based out of Chicago but a resident of New Orleans
Mimi Earley, Denver station manager
Chris Younger, assistant engineer based in Oakland
Bob Pimm, conductor based in Oakland

If by some chance you are a rail buff and happen to know where any of them might be, pray let me know. You'll get a free copy of the e-book in the format of your choice as well as my undying gratitude, for whatever it's worth.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Helen Frankenthaler meets Dick Cheney

When the great abstract artist Helen Frankenthaler died last week, I was taken back to 1979 and an interview in the Manhattan home of Bernard Malamud, who had just published his comic novel Dubin's Lives. As Malamud busied himself making tea in the kitchen, a pair of paintings in his foyer caught my eye.

"Helen Frankenthaler originals," said Miriam Berkley, the free-lance literary photographer who had accompanied me to the interview. Miriam, who had modeled for the painter Raphael Soyer, knew something about art.

After the interview I made it my business to learn about Frankenthaler's work—simply possessing it said a great deal about Malamud—even though I was embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of her. One has to start somewhere, after all.

Yesterday I read, in Joseph Epstein's splendid new book Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, an anecdote that made me feel a bit less self-conscious about my enormous ignorance.

One night in 1991, Epstein writes, he and Frankenthaler were at dinner in Washington with Irving Kristol, the neoconservative thinker, and his wife Bea, also known as Gertrude Himmelfarb, the renowned Victorian historian. Later in the evening Dick and Lynne Cheney joined the company for dessert. Lynne Cheney, then chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, wanted to know what Epstein and Frankenthaler, both members of the NEA's council, thought about its operation.

According to Epstein, Dick Cheney was "self-effacing and modest," choosing to remain in the background while his wife did the conversational heavy lifting. "Perhaps it was a relief to be silent after crowded days at the Pentagon and after appearing so frequently on television . . . with Colin Powell at his side, to answer questions on how the war [Gulf War I] was going."

After the Cheneys left the restaurant, Epstein continues, "I found myself much impressed with them. So, too, did Helen Frankenthaler, who said: 'She is a very bright woman. Her questions were genuinely penetrating. Very impressive. Really smart, Lynne Cheney. But tell me, her husband, what does he do?"

"Bea, Irving, and I looked at one another.

"'Actually,' I said, 'he's secretary of defense.'"

Somehow that delicious bit of gossip makes me feel better about all the holes in my knowledge.