O. WINSTON LINK - more than a railway photographer
I confess this post doesn’t sound promising.
It is about O. Winston Link, a little-known photographer who specialized in photographing steam trains. But stay with me - it’s a fascinating story for any photographer and further testimony to the power of photography to break free of categorization.
I’d never heard of Link before seeing a small exhibition of his photographs at The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. This got me interested and I started to research his work. As well as being technically fascinating, his photographs are a remarkable document of the interaction between technology and the rural environment. Anyone who has ridden American trains will know that even today many lines go right through the centre of small towns which came to depend on the rail link. The intimacy of the relationship between the railroads and settlements is much greater than has been the case in the UK and it is this relationship that Link seems to have spotted and portrayed so well.
Link's lighting rigs
Link made a name for himself by photographing steam trains just at the point they were being phased out, lugging huge self-designed lighting rigs around the hills of Appalachia in search of old locomotives passing through towns, past houses, stores, swimming pools and interacting at many levels with rural human settlements. He started shooting the trains of the Norfolk & Western Line in 1955, one of the last routes for the steam engines that had provided the foundation for America’s economic ascendancy in the first half of the century. The company announced a few months later that it planned to shift to diesel and Link decided to document the last of the steam-powered trains.
Link, a commercial photographer born in New York with an idealized vision of small-town America, made meticulously composed photographs which testify to his engineering training. He compositions could take hours and even days to set up. He usually posed the railway workers for his 'candid' shots. He preferred nighttime shots to avoid the continually shifting intrusions of the sun. He built elaborate lighting arrangements and used multi-camera setups to produce hyper-real photographs of these massive engines shrouded in clouds of steam. The project, which ended in 1960, also portrayed railway workers and the people and places that lined the tracks. Link was fascinated by small-town America and the ideals it represented although we see now that he was documenting the end of a prosperous Appalachia and the small-towns that lined its hills and valleys.
Surreal yet real - smalltown America and the railroads
Photographing at night allowed Link to present the huge powerful engines as magnificent in their commanding presence, steam plumes dramatically lit by his synchronized Sylvania Blue Dots. The elaborate artificiality of these photographs and strange juxtapositions with people along the line whose lives they affected sometimes seem surreal. The photos hover somewhere between kitsch, documentary and fine art. But their impact is enormous evoking, as Richard Shepard put it in the New York Times, 'an unmatched sense of Americana, doing for the eyewhat the sound of a wailing whistle in the countryside does for the ear'.
A dedicated museum - the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Va and housed in an old N&W station - opened in 2004. A book by Tony Reeve called O Winston Link: Life along the Line was published a few years ago but doesn't seem to be listed on Amazon.com.
Trains that Passed in the Night: The Photographs of O. Winston Link,
Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Road, Minneapolis
Until February 9 2015
All text © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.
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