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The Last Days of Steam


ISSUE:  Winter 2004

O. Winston Link and Virginia

Shortly after the turn of the year, the O. Winston Link Museum, the only museum devoted to the art of a single photographer in the United States, will open in the former passenger station of the Norfolk & Western Railway in Roanoke, Virginia. The renovated building will contain the remarkable series of photographs Link created from 1955 to 1960 of the last years of steam-powered railroading on the N&W, a coal-hauling railroad with a strong belief in coal-burning steam locomotives. The Link Museum will become one of the jewels in a string of sites throughout what might be called “railroad Virginia,” stretching from Lynchburg through Roanoke, a city built by the railroad, and out to Abingdon and Bristol. This whole region of southwestern Virginia (and much of southern West Virginia as well) has been the creation of the railroads, or significantly supported by the railroads. It was this life—of, on, and alongside the Norfolk & Western Railway—which Winston Link recorded with such success.

Ogle Winston Link was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914, the second child and first son of Albert and Anne Winston Jones Link. Al Link was born in West Virginia, and Anne in Georgia but of Virginia stock. While Ogle and Winston were two distinguished names from Anne’s forebears, it was Al, a humorist and storyteller, who insisted that they be assembled to spell OWL, an image Winston (who stopped using his first name after college) utilized as his professional logo throughout his life. Al Link had hoped to be a lawyer but after failing the New York bar taught manual arts in the public schools of Brooklyn for many years. He seems to have placed great demands on his children to serve valuably and achieve a status he never reached. His eldest child, Eleanor, was brutally harassed as one of the first women to study law in Brooklyn, but she persevered and subsequently practiced there successfully for decades. Winston and his younger brother, Albert, Jr., both studied engineering. Winston took a degree in civil engineering, although his innate theatricality profoundly altered his career path.

Winston Link never studied photography, although it interested him from adolescence. During his college years at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Link made photos for the school paper, including photos for an article on Brooklyn’s reigning burlesque queen. In an after-dinner talk shortly after these pictures were published in the spring of his senior year, Link invented an interview between the stripper and one of the school’s stuffier engineering professors. It was so humorous and well received that a member of the audience offered Link a job as a photographer in a large Manhattan public relations firm. The company was just beginning to use photographs to slip its clients’ goods or services into the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Winston was frequently called on to create photos that were so witty and clever that jaded photo editors couldn’t resist them—even when it was clear that they were just thinly disguised advertising.

Link worked in this mode from 1937 to the onset of World War II. A childhood illness had compromised his hearing, so he served his country as a photographer-researcher in a secret military laboratory run by Columbia University. It was here that he perfected his technical skills as a photographer. At war’s end, he was invited back to the PR firm but declined, deciding instead to step out as an independent, freelance photographer. He quickly built up a reputation for being able to successfully tackle complex photos of industrial subjects and produce results that were both clear in meaning and handsome images as well. Link always preferred working by himself, or with just one assistant, and he developed a solid following among a number of well-known companies. He liked to quote one of his clients, who told him, “Winston, I don’t know what I want, but I want you to go out and get it. When I see it, I’ll know if it’s what I thought I wanted.” He enjoyed the challenge of bringing visual meaning to what had been inchoate ideas.

If he was never trained as a photographer, Winston Link was an adept autodidact. He knew nothing of “art photography,” but he learned and understood what was necessary to achieve a good advertising photo. More importantly, he had an innate and unerring sense of composition and organization using the old-fashioned methods of large cameras fixed on tripods to record carefully organized scenes. It was a methodology that fit his powerful sense of control and order. If there was one problem for Winston Link the commercial photographer, it was that he was working as an essentially anonymous intermediary between subject and client. He was particularly annoyed when the client didn’t select what the photographer thought were his best photos of any project, but working in this manner, the photographer was not regarded as much more than the means to achieve the client’s goal.

From his youngest days, Link had been fascinated by mechanical devices. As a teenager, he and his friends had visited the great Erie and Jersey Central rail yards in New Jersey to watch steam locomotives at work, and by early 1955, he realized that steam locomotion, which he dearly loved, had all but vanished from American railroads. In January of that year he had an assignment in Staunton, Virginia, and he took the opportunity to drive the few miles to Waynesboro to visit the N&W, which he knew to be the last major railroad powered by steam. What he saw there brought him back the next night to make his first night photos of the railroad, and then to seek permission from the railroad’s management to record the working railroad at night. This was a project he took on only for himself and which he financed himself, taking both time and money from his successful photographic practice. The N&W’s executives were delighted to assist and often did much more than just assent to let him photograph. On a number of occasions the railroad rerouted traffic on different tracks, held trains so he could have time to change flashbulbs, or reorganized cars in the trains to help him out.

Link began the project by working in the yards and shops of the railroad. The photo of J. W. Dalhouse cleaning the headlight of locomotive 127 is among the first ten that Link shot in early 1955. But shortly thereafter, it became obvious to Link, the photographic “dramatist” if you will, that the life along the line deserved documentation and preservation along with images of the engines themselves. The project expanded exponentially, and Link quickly found himself making photographs such as “A Summer Evening with Train No. 2,” of several older folks on the porch of a house in Lithia, chatting as a train passed in the background.

Although Winston Link never articulated it specifically, this project was the equivalent of creating an advertising campaign which might have been called “The Steam Locomotive and the Good Life in America.” In this case, however, he was his own client and art director—and he knew what he wanted and how to get it. At last here was a project in which the photographer was preeminent. In order to photograph at night, something he did both to control the illumination and composition of the photos and to create a new and unique imagery, Link had to design and build a special flashbulb power supply and a number of huge flash reflectors, one holding 18 flashbulbs, which were necessary to create the large and intense washes of light necessary to stop the motion of a train moving at up to 60 miles an hour.

Link recognized at once that making photos in this manner would be profoundly self-restrictive. He would be able to produce only very few images of this railroad, a problem that was complicated by the fact that he lived about 500 miles away from the scenes he was photographing. Thus, in the tradition of advertising photography, he had to create situations where both human and mechanical events were carefully brought together in a way to create the strongest possible effect. Link sought to tie the railroad, the background to the good life, to activities associated with that life. Thus one finds Link working with a farmer and son (and the mix of generations was important to him) to perform the ancient ritual of bringing in the cows just as a train darts past in the background. Similarly, Link set up the situation of tying the anticipation of popular events to the presence of the railroad. Thoughts of Christmas, captured by the activity of bringing in the Christmas tree, are held in abeyance for a moment as a wonderful train passes high overhead on a fine bridge.

One may wonder if Link’s most famous image, “Hotshot Freight, Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia,” the 1956 photo of a drive-in movie, has perhaps achieved its popularity not just because of the sheer endeavor and technological chutzpah of its creation, but because of the memories so many of us of a certain generation may have of those evenings at the drive-in. Link worked to create a balance between photos such as this, in which the steam railroad is in the background to the good life, and those which emphasized the locomotives themselves. He particularly enjoyed documenting locomotives receiving propitiating attention from cleaners, lubricators, and hostlers whose diminutive human size strongly emphasized the massive scale of these machines.

In the end, Winston Link spent more time along the N&W’s rights of way than anywhere else in his life save New York City and its environs. He made 21 trips to the N&W, spending about nine months in just over five years working there. The project was hugely expensive, costing him about $20,000, the equivalent of more than $125,000 today. Winston was not a “railfan.” He was not interested in simply making a record of a vanishing type of locomotion, much as a zoologist might document an endangered species, but rather he wished to have us see through his photos these machines as deeply embedded in, and very much part of, the life that was lived in their shadow. Some years ago, following a talk I gave on Winston Link’s photos at a museum in Charleston, South Carolina, an elegant woman approached me and spoke a few words, which I believe encapsulate a very common reaction to these images. She said, “Mr. Garver, normally I wouldn’t give a whit about these greasy old machines, but I’m just enraptured with these photos.” Winston laughed uproariously when he heard the remark, repeating the phrase “greasy old machines, eh?” But here is the heart of these photographs. Individuals who would never think of themselves as having the slightest interest in such machines, or photos of them, are, indeed, enraptured by these images. At a fundamental level, Winston Link understood the basic premise of advertising: bring people in—in spite of themselves. And that is what has happened. People have come to these photos, this record of a vanished technology, and perhaps of a vanished way of life as well, in spite of themselves. They are moved by their authenticity and Winston Link’s unerring composition and his utter lack of distance or irony in his subject matter. He believed then in what he was doing—and we believe it now.

The O. Winston Link Museum is scheduled to open in January 2004. A selection of the images will be on display at the UVA Art Museum through December 21, 2003.

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