New York

O. Winston Link, Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, VA, August 9, 1956, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 16".

O. Winston Link, Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, VA, August 9, 1956, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 16".

O. Winston Link

O. Winston Link, Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, VA, August 9, 1956, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 16".

O. Winston Link’s magnificent photographs of steam-powered locomotives, taken half a century ago, appear now to prefigure artistic projects with which gallery-goers are likely more familiar. In one image, the speeding locomotive seen through a living room window calls to mind Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era collage series “Bringing the War Home,” 1967–72. Link’s picture of a massive engine racing across a railway bridge, beneath which a boy shoos cows and a couple sits in a car, or his image of a man sitting at the window of a third-floor apartment as a train lumbers along Main Street, offer a just-plausible surrealism perfected in recent decades by Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. The railroad’s presence, even in images seemingly focused upon other aspects of small-town life, is akin to that of the nuclear reactors that hover forebodingly in several of the photographs published in Mitch Epstein’s book American Power (2009).

Yet unlike these successors, who self-consciously tell stories that are explicitly political or charged with psychological ambiguity, Link undertook a project that was relatively straightforward. He was a commercial photographer based in New York whose early love of trains was resuscitated while he was on assignment in 1955, when he took a side trip to watch a steam engine pass through town. Fascinated by the hulking machine and realizing that the Norfolk and Western lines comprised, as the exhibition title suggests, “The Last Steam Railroad in America,” Link tried to capture the tail end of the country’s century-long devotion to steam-powered travel. It was a five-year labor of love, resulting in more than two thousand images, each accompanied by a painstakingly detailed caption describing the location, the film used, the type of engine depicted, and the names of people included in the shot.

Link’s pioneering use of multiple flashbulbs to create dramatic nighttime images of unusual clarity and focal depth remains remarkable today. So, too, does his talent for directing the station managers and local citizens who populate his scenes and who often give the staged images an improvisational air. His compositional sense was unerring, as evidenced by a dramatic image of kids splashing in a creek beneath two bridges, across one of which chugs a train. Like Charles Sheeler’s iconic 1927 photograph of crossed conveyors at Ford’s River Rouge plant, the bridges in Link’s image form a dynamic X; in addition, the train and the children, at different distances from the lens, are both in focus, and all of this activity is framed by bands of inky black sky and water.

But no matter the photographs’ individual merits, which are many, their value accrues when seen in aggregate. Consider that Link began his project the same year that Robert Frank began his series “The Americans.” Consider, too, the vastly different Americas the two men captured. In contrast to Frank’s astringent scenes of a diverse and increasingly fragmented population, Link hymns small communities that swap news in the country store or congregate at the drive-in theater. These Virginia towns, Link’s photographs suggest, were held together by the steel rails that carried people and mail from one place to another and that provided many citizens a means to their livelihoods. It can be argued that we still live in the world Robert Frank first revealed to us. By contrast, even in our country’s remotest corners, the life Link so painstakingly captured has perished—not least due to the centrifugal effects of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, passed while Link was working on this series. The social, spatial, and economic relationships he revealed, not to mention the omnipresent engines themselves, are an important aspect of our nation’s history. We are lucky not only that he arrived to capture them when he did, but also that he documented them with such determination and flair.

Brian Sholis