Model trains, childhood memories and photo-collaging

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 13, 2010

It’s always a pleasure for me when I’ve come up with a column that really connects with our readers. Last week’s on Walter Fankhauser’s model railroad, with its full-page photo collage, drew a very special set of responses: praise, mixed with nostalgia and technical graphic curiosity.

Praise for the wonders of Walter’s world tops the list. Many folks around Cochrane who have personally visited his home-based layout kept coming up to me all week and sharing stories of their own enjoyment of his achievement.

But Walter’s set-up drew praise from far-away places, too. From India, home of one of the most heavily used railway systems in the world, Mumbai coffee companion Raj Patwardhan responded, “Truly Amazing!”

Closer to home, Springbank resident Ralph Dubienski, dentist and passionate humanitarian, wrote: “The details of Walter's projects are incredible. It’s amazing to see what people can do with their creativity when they are passionate about something.”

Then there were the nostalgic responses.

Several readers, myself included, recall the large O gauge model trains they used to have. “I too love trains, had a Lionel set when I was a kid,” wrote Fr. Max Oliva from Las Vegas, Nev.

From Vancouver Island, Leanne Forest wrote: “This column was a great reminder of the trains set up in our basement when we were kids. My dad and my brothers used to play with the trains for hours!”

And it’s not just guys who played with the trains.

From St. Albert, Jenny Bocock remembers her childhood in England: “I lived with a family of three boys who played with trains. I liked playing with them more than dolls.”

From Texas came this note from Shirley Collier, wife of renowned sculptor John Collier:

“Thanks for sending these pictures. Even though I’m a girl, my dad bought me a train set and I spent many a joyful hour playing with it, and I love miniature villages. I’d love to see Walter’s layout, if we ever get back to Cochrane.”

Then there’s the particular kind of nostalgia that Liz Giles, formerly of Cochrane and now living in Victoria, B.C., experienced. Over lunch in Cochrane with my wife and me last Friday, she recalled her younger days back east when she often took an overnight train. She always tried to get an upper berth in a sleeping car. There the passing night lights dancing to the train’s entrancing clickety-clack rhythm gave her sweet dreams while en route to her daybreak destination.

Ah, the evocative power of the rails!

But how about the graphic technique I used to make the photo collage that accompanied last week’s column? This is of interest especially to several of Walter’s hiking buddies.

Although I have the greatest respect for award-winning photographers who can capture the essence of a moment in a single image, I have followed a somewhat different path. I usually try to tell a story through a collection of images, sometimes in chronological or thematic sequence, as in a slide show, but more often brought together into a holistic collage in which all the various elements are to be seen pretty much at the same time. This gives me the freedom to subordinate smaller details of a photo essay within a framework of a larger image which sets the overall mood.

In my photo essay on Walter’s mini-world, I chose to incorporate the smaller, detailed images of engines, coal cars, colliery, villages, wildlife, and people within the dominant full-page image of Walter holding his remote control unit from which he operates his complex system.

Modern digital software has provided various ways for creating such collages. The combination of software programs I used for last week’s collage is as follows:

After downloading into the computer the shots from my wife’s Canon G10 and my G11 cameras, I processed each of the best images in Photoshop CS4 to adjust colour, brightness, contrast, cropping and size.

Next, with Microsoft Office Publisher I created a page equal to the size of the finished collage as it would appear on the newspaper’s published page. Into this I copied the photos I was considering using, playing with number, location and size till I arrived at what, for me, was the most appropriate arrangement for the overall story. As a final touch, I outlined the inset photos in white to allow them to stand out against the darker background photo of Walter.

Then I saved it as a TIFF file, copied it onto a USB flash drive and delivered the completed photo collage to Eagle copy editor Alan Mattson. The rest was up to his magic touch.

So, that’s how we did it, folks. Glad you liked it, and so are Walter and Alan.

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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