In the Grand Tradition

O. Winston Link works from the Collection of Tom Garver

This robust grouping of O. Winston Link works, from the collection of Thomas H. Garver, tracks the period of 1955 to 1960, when Link was documenting the last years of steam powered railroading (and the small-town rural life it sustained) on the Norfolk and Western Railway—the last major American railroad to operate exclusively with steam power. 

Garver, who is the former assistant director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, is Winston Link’s last surviving assistant from that era. He has also contributed academic research and texts for two books on Winston Link and was the organizing curator of the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia. What follows is an account by Garver of his time spent with the artist and perspectives on the lasting importance of the project.

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In the spring of 1957, I was one year out of college and living in New York City. I was studying there and needed a little extra money, so I took a two-day-a-week job, at $1.50 an hour, for O. Winston Link, a freelance photographer who specialized in industrial subjects. He worked for a number of specialized advertising companies making photos of stuff, from window glass to petroleum products, that most of us would not have thought of as worth photographing. Much of his work was used in specialized trade magazines and ads, so he had to make the objects he was photographing as interesting and appealing as possible; he did this by vivifying his inanimate subjects through the use of people and their activities, as well as carefully controlling the lighting to increase the visual drama. 

Tom Garver in 1958, riding in a mail car across Virginia during a sound recording session. Image: The O. Winston Link Museum
Tom Garver and Link in the 1990s, working together on one last photograph of Link with an N&W train. Photograph by Peter Moore. 

The documentation of the Norfolk and Western Railway was a visionary project Winston took on as a labor of love and commitment to a quickly vanishing technology. It was a massive undertaking, requiring more than twenty trips from New York City to Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland and nine months on location over a five year period. While the project was entirely self-funded, he created these photos (and later, accompanying sound recordings) at the same level as he would for his professional clients. 

Winston Link saw his job as being far more expansive than just making a record of what he called the “hardware,” the locomotives themselves, and in this regard his work is unique among those who have photographed the American railroad, for his images moved into the towns the railroad served, showing the vitality of the life it supported. I think that one should regard the project, which comprises more than 2,500 images—the vast majority of them made with a 4x5 inch view camera on a tripod and equipment specially-designed to capture trains moving at upwards of sixty miles per hour—as being an advertising campaign. It was a campaign to preserve these disappearing machines both visually and aurally. It was Winston Link’s vision of what might be called “The Steam Locomotive and the Good Life in America,” and it was his alone.

As he did in the photos made for his clients, Winston Link wanted to control as much of the scene as possible to make the product or activity being photographed appealing and dramatic. This is the principal reason why he worked primarily at night and it was something that had never been done before at this scale. Much of the railroad’s right of way was neither dramatic nor appealing, and there was nothing he could do about that; he used to say, “I can’t move the sun, and I can’t even move the tracks. All I can do is move the light.” Filmmakers have always admired Link’s work, and the reason is obvious: controlling the light controlled the perceived “reality” of the scene and viewers’ reactions. Controlling the light and adding the vitality of human activity, often making that activity the center of the image, with the railroad a peripheral but critical component, are elements which make these works exceptional and relevant today.

Winston spotted this dam from one of the trips he took on many of the N&W’s passenger trains, looking for places to make photos. The problem was that it could only be made in early spring, before the trees leafed out and while the river was running high with snowmelt. The only way across the river, for miles, was on a two wire bridge, one wire for your hands, one for your feet, a few yards below the dam. It took six days to set up, shoot only seven negatives, and tear down. This image is the single result.   —Tom Garver

Link at Gooseneck Dam

O. Winston Link

A self-taught photographer, engineer and storyteller, O. Winston Link is best known for his stunning black-and-white photographs and sound recordings capturing the last days of steam locomotive railroading in the United States. Born in Brooklyn in 1914, Link’s early interest in photography was encouraged by his father Al who taught woodworking for the New York City public schools. Link attended the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and studied civil engineering before accepting a position as a photographer for Carl Byoir’s public relations firm. He met his first wife, a former Miss Akr-La-Tex while on assignment in Louisiana in the late 1930s and honed his skills shooting publicity photos for the PR firm. During the war, Link worked for the US government photographing the development of an aircraft project and would later open his own commercial studio in New York in 1946.

In 1955, his longstanding love for railroading and his career as commercial photographer collided. While on assignment in Staunton, Virginia, Link captured his first night photograph of a Norfolk and Western Railway steam-powered train and what started as a hobby soon evolved into a full-time career. Over the next five years Link made about twenty, self-funded trips to the N&Ws tracks in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, producing about 2,400 images (most of them on 4 × 5 sheet film) using a tripod-mounted view camera and custom engineered equipment, including a system of self-powered synchronized flashbulbs placed in scattered reflectors and wired to discharge simultaneously equivalent to 200,000 110 watt incandescent lightbulbs.

Simultaneously, Link made sounds recordings of the trains, painstakingly captured on a monophonic tape recorder with a custom-built portable power supply. He issued six audio collections during his lifetime that comprise the Sounds of Steam Railroading series, an important historical record of days past. In 2003, the series was added to the National Registry by the Library of Congress.

In 1983, a traveling exhibition of his photographs sparked widespread interest in his work and Link became the subject of a 1990 documentary, Trains That Passed in the Night. Link’s newfound popularity and commercial successes were marked with scandal, and his second wife, Conchita was ultimately jailed for embezzling and stealing thousands of photos from the ailing artist. Nevertheless, Link remained active in his later years and in 1999, he even made a cameo in the film October Sky (from the window of a steam locomotive, of course). In 2001, Link suffered a heart attack near his home in South Salem and died.

Link’s work received worldwide recognition and has been exhibited widely throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. His photographs are held in major museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Getty Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk. Private collectors including Stephen Spielberg and Diane Keaton. Link’s rail photography is exhibited at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia—refurbished by the famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy—and is the only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to the work of one photographer.

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