Full steam ahead

Had the summer of 1955 not been an exceptionally cool one up and down the Eastern Seaboard, O. Winston Link’s stunning photographs documenting the final years of the steam-engine train might never have blazed into life.

Link — trained in civil engineering, but enthralled with photography since his father presented him with a camera as a small child — was then a well-known commercial photographer who specialized in publicity shots for corporations. In the summer of ’55, he was sent to Westinghouse Corporation’s headquarters in Staunton, Va., for the decidedly dull task of photographing air conditioners. “It had been cool all summer, and air-conditioner sales were way down,” explained the 83-year-old Link in a telephone interview from his home in Westchester County, N.Y. “They had to sell all that excess inventory, so I went down there to make advertising pictures.”

Link had been enamored with steam-engine locomotives — with their raging, explosive, fiercely graceful power and beauty — since he’d traveled by train with his parents a quarter-century before from the family home in Brooklyn to Dalton, Ga. “Oh, those Southern locomotives were green and gold then, just beautiful,” he gushes.

A Westinghouse employee (and fellow steam-engine aficionado) invited Link to a Norfolk and Western station in nearby Waynesboro to watch Train No. 2 pull in, on its night run from Roanoke to New York City. “That was it,” recalls Link, “that was all I needed to see.”

During that fateful summer, Link was all too aware that the demise of steam power on America’s railways lay just around the corner. (“Diesel was always on my back,” he says of the five years he dedicated to photographing steamengines, until the last one was retired in 1960. “Time was running out.”) He returned to Waynesboro the next evening and made the first of 2,400 photographs, the bulk of them taken at night, along the Norfolk and Western Line — the last steam-powered railway in America.

Pleased with the Waynesboro photograph (though it fell short of the immaculate technical precision he was to later perfect) Link dreamed up a way to fully consummate his steam-infused love affair: He asked Norfolk and Western’s permission to create a series of photographs that would feature not only the line’s locomotives, but also the people and places behind them — visually documenting a vanishing way of life. Link, himself, would fund the project; there would be no cost to the railroad. A few weeks later, impressed with the lone Waynesboro shot and other samples of Link’s work, Norfolk and Western approved the project. And, in a further coup, Link was given unheard-of carte-blanche access to the railroad — right down to a switch key that opened all the telephone boxes along the line, giving him immediate access to dispatchers and train schedules.

More than 30 of the most striking works from Link’s photographic opus are currently on display in O. Winston Link: Memories and Machines at the Asheville Art Museum.

Link eventually rode 5,000 miles on the Norfolk and Western, scouting locations and getting to know the railroad men, some of whom he remained in touch with for decades.

“I loved everything about the trains,” he enthuses. “I loved the countryside; I loved the little towns.” Almost five decades later, Link can still remember “a big oak tree, and a beautiful little house with bric-a-brac woodwork all around the porch” near the Bristol, Va. station.

The steam-engine photographs required a mind-bogglingly complex and technical lighting and set-up process. As Link once said, “I can’t move the sun — and it’s always in the wrong place — and I can’t move the tracks, so I had to create my own environment through lighting.” And create environments he did, falling back on his engineering skills, at times. “There was really no trial and error,” he explains, “because every shot I made was [from] one single film, and I had only one opportunity to get most of the shots, because the train was only ‘there’ for a fraction of a section. And most of the photos were made at night, in total darkness, while the trains were in motion.”

Link worked with large-format plate cameras and multiple banks of synchronized flashbulbs, along with other complex lighting devices. Many shots literally took weeks and even months to plan, as Link had to measure and survey the sites to make precise lighting calculations and experiment with various flash and power-supply configurations. The haunting “Highball for the Double Header,” one of Link’s rare color night shots of a train pulling into a tiny, spartan station (and one of his last steam-engine photographs) was three months in the planning. It was finally captured at 3:30 a.m. in the rain, in a single, perfect shot. “Oh, that wasn’t as complicated as some of my others,” Link now casually notes about the photo.

The artist produced no impromptu shots of moving locomotives because such a task would have been impossible, considering the equipment and lighting required. Some of the photos, though, were staged more elaborately than others. He’d swing into small towns along the Norfolk and Western line in his Buick convertible, loaded down with equipment, and promptly enlist townspeople of all ages as “extras” and assistants in stringing the hundreds of yards of wiring necessary for the massive power supply he needed for his lighting systems.

In two of his best-known photographs, the “staging” is so extravagant that the steam-engines themselves become almost lost. “Swimming Pool, Welch, West Virginia, 1958″ was shot, poolside, on a hot summer night. Young people (one of them Link’s nephew) lounge by a backyard pool and splash in the phosphorescent glow of the water. At the top of the frame — like a stealthy steel ghost — a train rumbles past, trailing a light puff of smoke, as if to say to the frolicking youth below, “Don’t mind me — just passing through.”

“Hot Shot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia” — Link’s most famous and widely reproduced photograph — similarly places a train in the background. Shot at the Iaeger Drive-In during the screening of the Korean War film Battle Taxi, this staggering shot is populated by a huddle of cars parked at the drive-in, with a cuddling couple prominently displayed in the foreground. On the movie screen, a fighter plane is frozen in mid-flight. And in the top right corner, a Norfolk and Western night train whizzes by. The technical gymnastics Link employed to obtain this shot included replacing the fighter-plane image that had been on the movie screen with an identical one, taken with the camera in the exact same position and with the same focal-length lens. “When the flash went off for the image of all the cars parked in the parking lot, it obliterated everything on the screen, which went completely white,” remembers Link.

A 7-year-old girl named Beverly and her 3-year-old brother were among the locals who helped Link with the Iaeger photo shoot. Beverly received a silver dollar, a copy of the finished photo and a thank-you letter from Link for her services. “I was on the 20/20 television show several years ago, and Beverly’s brother, who, remember, was only 3 years old when that photo was taken, actually recognized me, some 40 years later and called his sister to tell her to turn her TV on,” Link says somewhat incredulously. “And Beverly then wrote me this beautiful letter about her experience [during the photo shoot] and how important it was to her, and she sent me a copy of the letter that I sent her when she was 7. That’s one of the nicest things that’s happened to me lately.”

The bulk of Link’s photos are not so theatrically orchestrated. Though a lifelong New Yorker, Link captured the rugged, voluptuous beauty of the mountainous Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina rail lines — as the majestic machines rumbled through gorges, valleys and villages in billowing clouds of smoke, exuding the animalistic energy of living, breathing entities — with the loving eye of a native. His lens lingered on the people who populated the whistle stops — and on ramshackle country stores, Puritan-plain backwoods churches, clusters of cows, and freshly washed clothes strung on the front porches of frame houses set so close to the tracks that the blasts of steam literally blew the clothes backwards. Looking at the photos, one can palpably feel the romantic pull of the trains, as small-town teenagers, dreamy housewives and men stuck in dead-end jobs undoubtedly fantasized about being swept away to some exotic, mysterious destination.

His darker, more eerie night shots show massive black machines — a single headlight coursing through the darkness and ominous plumes of steam often blending with real storm clouds on gloomy, rainy nights. Rows of telephone poles sometimes trail like skeletal scarecrows beside tracks that disappear into dense fog and, finally, nothingness.

Link’s steam-engine photographs were not publicly exhibited until 1983, 28 years since the beginning of his project. And, although the photographs have since been widely exhibited to immense critical acclaim and reproduced in two beautifully designed books, it’s clear that Link still harbors some bitterness over the fact that certain other photographers were lauded early on — and for doing a lot less work.

“One thing that gets me is this worship of Ansel Adams,” he grouses, late in our conversation, when he’s clearly getting comfortable. “I mean … that stuff he photographed has been out there [in the desert] for a million years, and it’ll be out there for another million. Anybody who knows how to work a camera can go out there and photograph it anytime.” He pauses, then adds what, to him, seems the final indignity. “I mean, it’s all standing still.

In documenting the ferocious glory and inevitable demise of the steam locomotive, Link’s photographs capture an America that didn’t stand still … an America he’s lived to see erased forever. Well, not quite — because the photos live on, and Link can still identify each one by the number he assigned it nearly 50 years ago. Oh, and one more thing: “I own all the negatives,” he declares firmly.

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