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 came out of the grand directiorial photographic tradition of the 1930s....I think it took a while for the pendulum to swing back and for people to appreciate that and see it as a remarkable artifact of the past. Steam locomotives and small towns had been so much part of our lives that they were invisible to us and then we started to see them differently as they started to disappear.

Tom Garver