Thursday, September 20, 2007

Spy tools: A camera and a scream

September 20, 2007

DEATH VALLEY, Calif. -- A century ago, prospectors combed the hills of this desert wasteland searching for specks of gold.

Today's prospectors search for cloaked cars. Instead of picks and shovels, they tote still and video cameras. Occasionally, they hit the jackpot.

It happened recently to shooter Glenn Paulina, 36, of Linden. He says he tracked a nervous Mercedes-Benz engineering crew for 200 miles as it tried to outwit spy photographers to road test what he believed was an SLC coupe.

After a 12-hour pursuit, Paulina says he got his shot.

"It's great fun," says Paulina, standing behind a trailer in Stovepipe Wells Village, a motel and store in Death Valley National Park, as he staked out what he believed to be a Chevrolet team across the road.

The queen of the spy photographers is Brenda Priddy, a 15-year veteran who spends weeks in Death Valley at a stretch and acts as a photo agency for other shooters as well.

She is known for being brazen, walking right up to vehicles to shoot pictures, then smothering engineers in smiles and conversation.

Reached by phone, she said one automotive crew recently text messaged her at her Beatty, Nev., hotel, just outside Death Valley, to meet them for a drink. She did, but they never divulged what they were testing.

"It's a love-hate relationship," Priddy, 47, said.

In this Internet age, filing spy photos immediately from a hotel room can make all the difference compared with the old days, when Priddy would process film and send pictures in overnight packages.

She has been threatened but never seriously hurt. If an engineer tries to grab a lens, she unleashes a noisy tirade. Of one episode last summer, Priddy recalled, "My daughter says she never heard me scream like I screamed at that guy."

Simon Avenia, 27, a photographer based outside of Stuttgart, Germany, who was on his first foray in Death Valley, said he understands the nature of the game from the engineers themselves.

"One guy told me everyone has to do their best to protect the cars," Avenia said. "They know we're going to catch them, so it's no big deal anyway."

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