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Arrested Motion: 1950s Railroad Photographs by O. Winston Link

 

(above: Ogle Winston Link, Untitled, photograph)

 

O. Winston Link's technically perfect images -- 38 featured in this exhibit -- capture the beauty of trains during the "Golden Age" of railroads, as well as the end of an American way of life as steam operations were terminated in 1960. Arrested Motion: 1950s Railroad Photographs by O. Winston Link will be on view through December 31, 2004 at Fenimore Art Museum.

New York photographer O. Winston Link became known as one of the most acclaimed photographers in the 20th century for his dramatically lit black and white photographs of trains and railroad towns. Link photographed the Norfolk & Western Railway's steam locomotives as they passed through the towns of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland from 1955 until 1960, when steam operations were terminated. Besides creating technically perfect images through the use of a complex synchronized flash system, Link's work captured the end of an American way of life. The images will be complemented by railroad artifacts from NYSHA's collections and audio recordings made by Link himself.

Ogle Winston Link was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. Link was introduced to photography by his father when he was in high school. He practiced this hobby at airports and railyards on Long Island and in New Jersey. Completely enamored with the craft, Link had built his own enlarger and dark room before he graduated from Manual Arts High School in Brooklyn. A graduate of Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Link worked as a commercial photographer for several years. It wasn't until 1955, that Link discovered Waynesboro, Virginia on assignment. Here, he witnessed the last of the large and powerful steam engines in operation in America, which hauled coal destined for Europe. He soon learned that these Norfolk and Western trains were destined for conversion to diesel engines and embarked on a mission to document the trains and the way of life that had been built around them. He proceeded to bring to fruition a fantasy to photograph the railroad and its workers, primarily at night. For the next five years, Link captured the engines, railyards, personnel and communities that were dependent upon the rail line. (left: Ogle Winston Link, Untitled, photograph)

Link's work began to be taken seriously as fine art in the early 1980s with several museum exhibitions in the United States and England. The 1987 publication Steam, Steel, & Stars featuring his railroad photographs and the subsequent 1995 book The Last Steam Railroad in America, dramatically increased recognition of Link's photographs.

 

Biography

Ogle Winston Link was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. While attending Brooklyn's Manual Training High School, Link developed an interest in mechanics and engineering. In addition to his formal schooling, his father introduced him to photography. Link became completely enamored with the art of photography and spent weekends shooting pictures at airports and railyards on Long Island and in New Jersey. Undoubtedly, it was here that Link developed his life-long love of trains.

Link went on to study civil engineering at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn where he was also the photo editor of the school's newspaper. After graduation in 1937, he temporarily abandoned civil engineering to work as a staff photographer for the public relations firm of Carl Byoir & Associates in Manhattan. After a brief return to engineering to design submarine-locating equipment for Columbia University during World War II, Link opened his own studio, operating as a freelance photographer for the remainder of his career. Unlike his contemporaries, Link did not become a photojournalist but instead sought commissions from commercial clients like Alcoa, B.F. Goodrich, and Texaco.

It was while working on a commercial commission in Virginia that Link became familiar with the Norfolk and Western Railway. From 1955 to 1960 Link made over 2500 pictures of the N & W steam locomotives for his personal collection. In addition to photographing the N & W trains, Link also made several sound recordings of working trains. Link became known for these recordings after finishing photographing the N & W but it was not until 1983 that his photographs were exhibited in a museum. Since then, they have received wide public and critical acclaim. Link died in 2001 in South Salem, New York. On January 10, 2004, the O. Winston Link Museum opened in Roanoke, Virginia. The Museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving and exhibiting Link's photographs and sound and video recordings.

 

Wall text panels

Introduction

O. Winston Link (1914-2001) is one of the most acclaimed photographers of the 20th century, known for his dramatic black and white nocturnal photographs of steam trains and railroad towns. These compelling images reveal the nostalgia and beauty of trains in American life in the 1950s, at the very end of the Golden Age of railroads.

In 1955, Link traveled to Waynesboro, Virginia and witnessed the last of the large and powerful steam locomotives in operation in America. He learned that the Norfolk & Western engines were destined for conversion to diesel and he made it his personal mission to document the trains and the way of life that had been built around them. Over the next five years, he brought to fruition a desire to photograph the railroad and its workers primarily at night. Using a complex, custom-designed synchronized flash system, Link captured the engines, railyards, personnel, and communities that were dependent upon the rail line.

While photographing the N & W, Link maintained a superb photographic vision. He created a distinct historical record, but he also fabricated idealized images of life. For Link, the massive, powerful and enigmatic train was a backdrop for American life in the 1950s; both were icons to be cherished and preserved. In a sense, Link was creating an advertising campaign for the preservation of the last steam railroad in America.

 

Style/Technique

"I can't move the sun and it's always in the wrong place. I can't even move the tracks so I had to create my own environment through lighting."
-O. Winston Link

Link was a master storyteller and his images weave tales of man and machine and of life along the tracks. He developed a distinct and complex personal style tailored to his work on the railroad. Link was working at a time when 'street photography' was popular and widely regarded as the only acceptable style of photography. But unlike street photographers who took candid photographs with small cameras and available light, Link employed more mechanical means and carefully contemplated each composition before its execution. With his custom-designed lighting system, the train's motion was stopped and he was able to emphasize the drama and surrealism of certain elements of the scene while hiding distracting ones. After spending hours setting up a scene, four photographs a day was a productive rate for Link and his crew of several assistants.

Using his commercial experience, Link precisely choreographed nighttime photographs with at least a day's worth of set-up. Link explored an area during the day and made sketches, took notes, and calculated distances and power needs in an N & W notebook that he always carried with him. Occasionally, he took color photographs of trains and the landscape during the day, as well. When he returned to the area at night, Link's 1952 Buick convertible was filled with a half mile of wire, a few 4" x 5" view cameras loaded with black and white film, the "red box" power supply, and numerous custom-made aluminum reflectors that held up to nineteen flashbulbs each. Also in tow were townspeople recruited for helping set up the scene. Link placed the huge flash units in strategic locations and wired them to his stationary camera, synchronized to the shutter. Once set up outside, Link sometimes went door to door asking residents' permission to illuminate the interiors of their homes. Then, as a final step, Link placed local 'actors' in the scene and then the long wait for the train would begin. Preceded by powerful rumblings and its minor-key whistle, the train would come into sight. At just the right instant Link would preserve its likeness as an icon. Sometimes, as if in sacrifice, Link's power lines that ran across the tracks would be severed by the wheels of the train just moments after the image was captured.



rev. 7/21/04

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