Our Dear Mr. Link
Works from the Collection of Joan Pharr Thomas
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.
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.
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.
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