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Thursday, July 23, 2015

O. Winston Link

Untitled, O. Winston Link
O. Winston Link, self-photo
As I've noted a few times before, it's rare for an artist to be so devoted to a particular area of content as to seldom portray anything else. Even artists such as Claude Monet, best known for his beautiful garden landscapes sometimes painted still-lifes. Rarer still is the photographer who displays such a limited range of subject content. There are, of course, photographers who shoot only portraits, or only landscapes, etc. but those are rather broad areas. O. Winston Link shot only steam locomotives. That's about the equivalent of a portrait photographer shooting only blue-eyed babies. Which is not to say Link didn't sometimes include other subjects in his pictures, but they were relegated to settings, often juxtaposed against the apparent intrusion of his ever-present mass of steam and steel, as seen in his most famous photos Hot Shot Eastbound (below). Sometimes his photos were nostalgic, as in his Untitled image (above). However often they were anything but.

Hot Shot Eastbound, Laeger, W. Virginia, 1956, O. Winston Link, his most famous photo.
Link and assistant, George Thorn,
New York, 1956.
Ogle Winston Link was a photographer's photographer, born in 1915, devoted to the tried and true, lugging around heavy, "ancient" cameras (even by the standards of his day), and massive arrays of lights. For the most part, Link shot only in black and white, even after color was well-established and the standard for most practitioners of his profession. Only very late in his career did he try color images (bottom). Link died in 2001, so the man had a very long career spanning more than sixty years. Photography changed a lot in the 20th-century and railroading still more. Link's career began with a wooden box camera and ended with digital technology. His favorite subjects began with steam behemoths, and ended with diesel-electric speed demons. In the process, Link broke new ground in art and science of night photography. One wonders, in seeing Link and his assistant (left), if he didn't need an entire train just to haul around his lights.

Hester Fringer's Living Room on the Tracks, Lithia, Va. 1955.
Even when shooting interiors such as Hester Fringer's living room on the tracks (above), Lithia, Va. 1955, the train passing just outside the window, is an ever-present reminder as to the importance this mode of transportation was, especially during the middle years of the century. Even in scenes in which no trains are visible, such as his people huddled around the pot-bellied stove in the general store (below), we seem to sense the proximity of the train thundering past, just beyond the frail walls.

We don't see the train, but we feel and hear it. The modern-day advertising seems to intrude into the scene of country nostalgia in place of the unseen train.
Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole,
Luray, Virginia, 1956, O. Winston Link
The young people enjoying what appears to be a nighttime pool party (below) seem oblivious to the rumbling presence of the steam locomotive intruding into their social lives in much the same way as Link saw it with his iconic Hot Shot Eastbound. In a similar manner, Link's Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole (right) captures a less sophisticated group of bathers, once more juxtaposing past and present, hot steam and cool waters, differing compositional layers reflecting similar layers of nostalgia seemingly at odds with one another. Link very often depicts a rural life so accustomed to the powerful presence of the railroad as to all but ignore its existence. Incidentally, we have to wonder if Link's Hawksbill Creek swimmers would braved the water at night were it not for another powerful presence on the scene--Link's lights.

Railroads bring prosperity in the 1960s. Prosperity brings swimming pools.
Ghost Town, Stanley, Virginia, 1957, O Winston Link.
Servicing EMD Diesel-Electrics,
Shaffers Crossing, Roanoke, Va. 1960.
A rare example of Link's use of color
and of Diesel-electric locomotion.