Railfan Incompetence 101

The phrase that serves as the headline for this article was uttered by fellow Akron Railroad Club member Peter Bowler.

Shown is Amtrak train No. 48 crossing Erie Street in Willoughby, Ohio. This isn’t the photo angle that I would have preferred, only the one that was available.

I didn’t know that the Lake Shore Limited was coming and that is where the incompetence comes into play. I could have known that fact had I sought out that information.

And yet three days after I made this image I recognized that while it is not a great image, it tells three stories, two of which are not obvious by looking at it. The third will be apparent only to those who like to look beyond the obvious.

It took an unexpected piece of wisdom from a man I’ve met just once for me to see more than one story and one meaning of this image.

* * * * *

Story 1 is a familiar one to many photographers. Peter and I had plans to railfan in Lake County with a list of objectives we wanted to achieve. At the top of the list was photographing an eastbound Norfolk Southern train passing the Willoughby Coal & Supply Company building.

I had heard a train call a signal on the NS radio frequency and we were standing on the sidewalk of the Erie Street crossing of the NS tracks waiting for that train to arrive.

I didn’t hear enough of the radio transmission to get the train’s location or symbol. I didn’t know if it was an eastbound or westbound.

Peter thought he heard a locomotive horn to the west, but after several minutes of waiting and no train showing up, he concluded he had heard traffic noise.

We waited several more minutes and he heard another sound that he was sure was a locomotive horn.

It was. It belonged to an Amtrak P42DC that Peter spotted shortly before it reached Erie Street.

“It’s Amtrak,” he proclaimed. He later said that as soon as he said that his heart sank. My morale plummeted. We had blown an opportunity and we knew it. All we could do was watch it from three blocks away.

I had thought about Amtrak earlier in the day, but didn’t give it a second thought.

Our outing was to begin 6:45 a.m. at the Golden Gate shopping plaza in Mayfield Heights, a place where Peter and I often rendezvous for photograph outings. I knew that before we even met up that Amtrak train 48 would be out of Cleveland already.

It is scheduled to depart at 5:50 a.m. Of the four Amtrak trains that serve Cleveland, the eastbound Lake Shore Limited is the one most likely to be running on time or almost on time.

It never occurred to either of us to call Amtrak Julie or check the Amtrak website to verify that No. 48 had already departed. That was incompetence on our part.

Had we checked the status of Amtrak 48, we could have been in position to photograph the train coming around a slight curve in really good morning light.

Had we contacted Amtrak we would have learned that No. 48 had left Cleveland an hour and 28 minutes late.

Opportunities to get that Willoughby curve image don’t come along every day for either of us. We had fumbled away a good opportunity and that hurt.

I had been so focused on getting an NS train that I had locked out the CSX radio frequency on  my scanner. Had I not done that I might have heard No. 48 calling signals and we could have gotten into position in time.

As for that NS train I had heard on the radio, it turned out to be westbound train No. 149. But we stayed with the location and got an eastbound around 9:30 a.m.

Although Peter and I achieved our objective of catching an eastbound train at the Willoughby Coal & Supply building, we struck out on all of our other objectives for the day, although that was a matter of fate and lack of knowledge rather than incompetence.

As we drove home that afternoon, we agreed that it had been, overall, a disappointing photography outing with the missed Amtrak photo op casting a pall over the day.

There is a saying that chance favors the prepared mind. We had not done as much preparation as we could have.

* * * * *

Story No. 2  unfolded on the morning of the next day. During breakfast I was reading a column published in the food section of The Plain Dealer by the former restaurant critic of the newspaper, Joe Crea.

I had started reading the column the night before, but didn’t finish it because I was tired.

I have met Crea once, but I doubt he remembers me. Ironically, I met him in a restaurant. My wife knew him because she works as a copy editor for the Plain Dealer.

The column I was reading focused primarily on Crea’s experience of the past year fighting cancer.

He had been diagnosed with cancer more than a year earlier and wrote about how his life had become a series of hospital stays, treatments, consultations with doctors, successes and setbacks.

His doctor is cautiously optimistic that he has been “cured” but that is not a certainty.

There was something about Crea’s column that resonated with me even though I’ve read similar thoughts expressed by other authors.

I’m old enough to know that my being in the same position that Crea is in is not as hypothetical as it seemed even a few years ago.

Like so many people diagnosed with cancer, Crea said he has learned to appreciate that every day is a gift, even a bad day.

As I thought about that, my thoughts immediately went to the “bad day” I had just had and the missed Amtrak photo op.

Maybe it hadn’t been so bad. Sure, it had been filled with disappointments, but it had been another day of living, another day of photography, another day of watching trains go by. Our passion for railroads had prompted Peter and I to get out trackside.

Some day there won’t be any more opportunities to go trackside. Some day my ability to get out and watch a train, even if from a distance of three blocks, may be greatly hindered and I’ll long for the days when I had easy mobility.

I had seen an Amtrak train, even if I hadn’t made the best photograph of it. I can’t remember the last time that I saw Amtrak live. It probably was last year, maybe last September.

* * * * *

I’m a big fan of the concept of framing. It is a practice that all of us do, even if we are not aware of it as we do it or even know the name of the behavior.

I’ve taught the concept in my public relations classes yet many students seem to have a hard time grasping it even though they’ve done it often.

A frame is a way of calling attention to a particular aspect of something, a way of drawing attention to one thing and away from something else. It is the essence of composition in photography.

On what do you focus and what meaning do you seek to make of it?

Joe Crea was framing when he wrote in his column that when you have a condition that could take your life away sooner rather than later even a bad day is a gift

I had been framing the meaning of my Amtrak down-the-street-image from a technical perspective. The meaning I had given to it was “missed opportunity due to incompetence.”

Framed in that manner, it is an average to mediocre image. It has a lot of clutter. The train is enveloped in shadows. There is nothing dramatic that will grab the viewer’s attention and lead him/her to conclude that he/she has seen something special.

It is another hum-drum image that many serious photographers would either have never made or would have deleted from their memory card.

That is one way to frame what this image means, but it is not the only way.

I am, at heart, a story teller. Even an average or mediocre photograph can have a story to tell and sometimes those stories are more compelling than the image might appear to be at a casual glance.

The fact that this photograph is so average is the story it has to tell.

Serious photographers think of trains and locomotives in much the same way that portrait photographers think of people.

They want the object of their desire to be posed in the most ideal manner. For a photographer that means good light and composition.

The ideal way to have photographed this train would have been a wedge view that took advantage of the morning sunlight and the train coming around a curve, thus exposing more of the train.

That is how a photographer sees Amtrak, but it is not the manner in which most people experience Amtrak.

Most people see Amtrak in the manner that I did in this photograph. It is a happenstance occurrence most likely to occur at a grade crossing or while approaching a grade crossing.

It will be a spontaneous moment surrounded by the clutter of the street that we see and hardly pay attention to during our everyday lives.

Even as a down-the-street-shot it would have been better had I stepped out into the street and been able to compose the image to avoid that street sign on the left side. But I didn’t do that because it might not have been safe.

I also didn’t have time to evaluate the setting. All I could do was react.

As it is, this image has already been cropped to eliminate a utility pole on the far left edge of the original image.

We can’t plan every moment of our days. So much of life is about spontaneity and living in and enjoying the unexpected small moments. Life is not always portrait quality and big moments.

The point of this photograph is to show one of those moments. In his column, Crea urged his readers not just to enjoy those moments but to understand that what might seem like a disappointment or setback might be something else.

It might be one of those moments that makes like worth living.

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2 Responses to “Railfan Incompetence 101”

  1. James L.Leasure Says:

    Peter Bowler, As a railfan, I can relate, I spend a lot of time on the computer before leaving to photograph trains. I usually travel 10 to 14 days.The planning is good, but I have found out in this world I can’t change somethings. Weather, Traffic and my over loading the schedule. Just remember that it’s the unexpected that show up in the long run!

    Jim,

    • csanders429 Says:

      For the record, the column that Jim is referencing was written by Craig Sanders and not Peter Bowler.

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