Our Dear Mr. Link

Works from the Collection of Joan Pharr Thomas

O. Winston Link. Photos courtesy of Catherine Thomas Boehmcke

Joan Pharr Thomas first met O. Winston Link in 1955. Her step-father Ben Bane Dulaney was an executive with the N&W Railroad, which earlier that year, announced that it would begin converting its steam locomotives entirely to diesel. Pursuing what began as a hobby, Link wrote to Dulaney and requested access to the N&W railyards where he could take photos and sound recordings of the remaining steam engines. Dulaney encouraged Link’s pursuits, and the two became close friends and collaborators—the executive provided access and support as Link chronicled the last days of steam locomotive railroading in the United States. 

The wedding of Joan Pharr Thomas shot by O. Winston Link

During his visits to N&W headquarters in Roanoke, Virginia, Link stayed with Dulaney and his family, growing close with Ben’s wife Mary (née Herbert Pharr) and their daughters, Joan and Judy. Joan in particular formed a special friendship with the artist and would often accompany Link on excursions for train watching and sound recording (trips that usually ended over a dish of peppermint ice-cream at the local Howard Johnson’s). Later, Link would accompany Joan on college visits, and photograph life’s milestones (big and small) including her wedding and children. For the last twenty years of his life, Link split time between his home in South Salem, New York and with Joan and her family in Roanoke. 

Link at work capturing a sound recording

Before his photography gained widespread recognition however, Link was best known for his sound recordings which were painstakingly captured on a professional eighty-pound monophonic tape recorder with a custom-built portable power supply (an impressive feat considering Link had no prior experience with sound recording). He issued six 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, an auspicious list of recordings deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” As Link was nearing retirement, he called upon the daughter of his old friend Ben Bane Dulaney (Ben wrote the liner notes for Link’s audio work) to take over his sound recording business, and in the early 1990s, Joan Pharr Thomas began the process of restoring and re-mastering Link’s original recordings into a new, digital format. The text included below is copy written by Thomas for the project and describes their long and loving friendship.

Catherine Thomas Boehmcke and her dog Hunter shot by O. Winston Link

The collection of photographic works offered here comes from the family of Joan Pharr Thomas—trustee of the artist’s estate—and includes early, and rare works by the groundbreaking photographer. Each work has been inscribed with a unique provenance identification number (JPT) from the artist’s trust indicating that they come from this important and comprehensive collection. Amassed over their decades long friendship, the selection encompasses Link’s early forays as a commercial photographer, his first attempts at steam engine photography, and the innovative night photography for which he is most well-known and respected. Lovingly maintained and cherished by Thomas’s daughter Catherine Thomas Boehmcke, who remembers Link as a near-constant figure throughout her childhood and adult life, this selection is the culmination of three generations of championing, stewarding and supporting the legacy of O. Winston Link. Thomas best described this sentiment in her audio notes written years ago, “Our dear Mr. Link, artist and poet with a camera and a recorder, it is with deep admiration and respect that we seek to honor you and to thank you for your gifts to us, so beautifully preserved through your photographs and recordings.”

1944, Villamont, Virginia

I was five years old, dozing on the sleeping porch as steam locomotives pounded the Blue Ridge grade. I think I can, I think I can. As the engine struggled to ascend and then descend the steep grade that railroad men called The Hill, I drew reassurance from the children's storyline: I know I can, I know I can.

Listen to O. Winston Link's
Sounds of Steam Railroads

Not one in a million Americans ever again will ride a scheduled mainline passenger train behind a live and breathing steam locomotive. That time is gone. Remembrance of the unique, indefinable glow in such trips fades and disappears. It was a singular thrill, that steam train riding, a sense of high adventure wrapped in warm well-being. The start from the pulsing terminal, the travelers on other trains, the open country where the whistles made no distinction between thronged highways and farmers' lanes, the solid roar of a bridges beneath, and the always unexpected smash of tunnels with darkness all around and echoes banging upon echoes. And the little train stations: A long wailing engine call and the hiss of slowing to the local agent's platform domain. The start with its first uncertain puff, then the rhythmic power growing heavier and heavier, quicker and quicker and quicker until the car wheels ticked the rail joints into new, strange lands.

Excerpt from The Fading Giant by Ben Bane Dulaney

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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