PRINT May 1989


IN A SENSE, O. Winston Link is a diarist. Using notebook jottings as reminders of names and locations, some sound recordings for atmosphere, and, above all, his superb black and white photographs, he documented the end of the era of the steam railway engine in the United States. These photographs are highly idiosyncratic and cogent, being mostly taken at night, when white smoke, steam, fire, bright lights, oiled pistons, and the gleaming metal of locomotives show up to best effect for the camera.

The handling of scale, balance, lighting, and composition in Link’s photographs makes it hard to believe that he never studied art in general or photography in particular. Link graduated as a civil engineer from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1937, when jobs were hard to find, and as a result of his great interest in photography he was able to join an international public-relations firm, where he eventually became chief photographer. During World War II he began to explore night photography at Columbia University’s Division of War Research. Outdoor flash photography was not an easy option then, for it required a complicated and unwieldy system of battery-capacitors, circuits of bulbs wired in series, solenoid-triggered cameras, and miles of cable. Though Link eventually was able to streamline this system somewhat, it was always heavy going, particularly on complex setups involving several of his 4-by-5-inch view cameras and a number of separate lines of bulbs.

After the war Link went into business as a commercial photographer. While on assignment in Virginia in 1955, he chanced on the Norfolk and Western Railroad, a local independent railway-line that had not yet made the transition from steam locomotives to diesel. In frequent visits over the next five years, Link carried his cumbersome but effective equipment to remote places on the N&W’s 2,500 miles of track. Although he was unpaid, he had the authorization of the railroad company to document the people employed on or living around the railroad; the stations, bridges, dams, towns, and crossings on the trains’ route; and particularly the engines themselves, a subject that had fascinated him since he was a boy, and still does to this day. In the meantime he continued to live and work in New York, funding his Virginia project by taking newspaper, fashion, and advertising assignments.

Link’s railroad photographs have been compared with the paintings of Norman Rockwell (without the sentimentality) and Edward Hopper (with more animation). There is clearly a strong esthetic quality, something quite other than simple documentation or genre, in images such as Main line on Main Street, Northfork, West Virginia, 1958, or Birmingham Special, Rural Retreat, Virginia, 1957. The staged placement of the characters, who often appear oblivious to a locomotive roaring past behind or beside them, recalls the surreal quality of René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Delvaux (none of whose work Link has ever seen). This careful staging, positioning, and lighting create a peculiar atmosphere, in that the photographs feel like studio setups taken outside the studio. The star character in all these images is the steam engine (albeit in its declining years), spewing smoke and vapor, sometimes stage center, sometimes peripheral (glimpsed through a window, or behind a church, or on the other side of a swimming pool), sometimes unseen but implicit.

Link’s photographs of the N&W are not commercial work—they were not originally intended for sale, being the result of the photographer’s personal passion. Of course one can cavil at the staged look or the overtheatrical lighting. But how did he accomplish the spontaneity of Hot Shot Eastbound at Iaeger, West Virginia, 1956, his most famous photo, of a drive-in movie theater in which an airplane is caught on screen at the moment that the engine rushes competitively by on the neighboring track? Or of Maud Bows to the Virginia Creeper, Green Cove, Virginia, 1956, with an old gray, horse bowing its head as if acknowledging the superiority of the railroad?

It was the genius of Link that he had the vision and the skill to use the advancing technology of night photography just in time to record the last gasps of the steam railway in the U.S. He also had the enthusiasm and interest to meet and be friends with the N&W staff, both on the trains and around them, which gave him access to locations and situations unavailable to an outsider. He was there to create and preserve such haunting and poignant images as Giant Oak, Max Meadows, Virginia, 1957. in which the huge tree seems to reach out to embrace the hurtling train, and Gooseneck Dam and No. 2 near Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1956, where earth, air, fire, and water are united in a zigzag of illumination.

On one level Link’s photographs bring out the child in us; on another, we can marvel as adults at the serene mastery of a difficult technique harnessed to innate artistry and dedicated patience. Luck is on the side of the patient, and patience and hard work rewarded Link with these effortless-looking images, which in fact took as long as a week to set up, and for which he had only the equipment for one shot in the dark.

Anthony Korner is the publisher of Artforum.