Monday, 4 April 2011

O.Winston Link

Maybe twenty years ago, Stills Gallery, off Edinburgh's Royal Mile, put on an exhibition of photographs by a New York-based commercial photographer called O.Winston Link. We hadn't heard of him (nowadays, anyone with half an interest in photography knows the name, and many with no interest at all will recognise his more iconic images), but we were intrigued, and went along to the opening. It was an eye-opener for me, and in fact I went back a few days later for a closer look, without the distractions of the people and the small-talk.

O. (for Ogle) Winston Link was born in Brooklyn in 1914. From early in life he had two passions: steam trains and photography. Rarely being lucky enough to combine them in his commercial work, he managed to do so with great artistry during his spare time, between 1955 and 1960. He made it his mission to document, in photographs, the last days of the great steam locomotives of the Norfolk and Western Railway, which operated through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina; all in black and white and mostly at night. The setup for just one shot could take days, involving hundreds of yards of cable and dozens of strategically-place banks of flash bulbs, wired in series to capture exactly the right moment. Often, he would enlist the help of locals or railroad workers, asking them to pose as the trains thundered past behind them, and he always took their names and gave them credit in the caption that accompanied every shot: in the picture above, First No.51 steams through the level crossing in Stanley, Virginia, and we know that the policeman patrolling Main Street that night was called Weldon Painter. For me, these walk-on characters, and the glimpses they afford of a small-town and rural life now passed into history along with the trains, deserve equal billing with the heart-stopping drama of the main event.

Link died of a heart attack near his home in South Salem, New York State, in 2001. There is a museum dedicated to his work in Roanoke, Virginia.
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