O. Winston Link
A self-taught photographer, engineer and storyteller, O. Winston Link is best known for his stunning black-and-white photographs and sound recordings capturing the last days of steam locomotive railroading in the United States. Born in Brooklyn in 1914, Link’s early interest in photography was encouraged by his father Al who taught woodworking for the New York City public schools. Link attended the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and studied civil engineering before accepting a position as a photographer for Carl Byoir’s public relations firm. He met his first wife, a former Miss Akr-La-Tex while on assignment in Louisiana in the late 1930s and honed his skills shooting publicity photos for the PR firm. During the war, Link worked for the US government photographing the development of an aircraft project and would later open his own commercial studio in New York in 1946.
In 1955, his longstanding love for railroading and his career as commercial photographer collided. While on assignment in Staunton, Virginia, Link captured his first night photograph of a Norfolk and Western Railway steam-powered train and what started as a hobby soon evolved into a full-time career. Over the next five years Link made about twenty, self-funded trips to the N&Ws tracks in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, producing about 2,400 images (most of them on 4 × 5 sheet film) using a tripod-mounted view camera and custom engineered equipment, including a system of self-powered synchronized flashbulbs placed in scattered reflectors and wired to discharge simultaneously equivalent to 200,000 110 watt incandescent lightbulbs.
Simultaneously, Link made sounds recordings of the trains, painstakingly captured on a monophonic tape recorder with a custom-built portable power supply. He issued six audio collections during his lifetime that comprise the Sounds of Steam Railroading series, an important historical record of days past. In 2003, the series was added to the National Registry by the Library of Congress.
In 1983, a traveling exhibition of his photographs sparked widespread interest in his work and Link became the subject of a 1990 documentary, Trains That Passed in the Night. Link’s newfound popularity and commercial successes were marked with scandal, and his second wife, Conchita was ultimately jailed for embezzling and stealing thousands of photos from the ailing artist. Nevertheless, Link remained active in his later years and in 1999, he even made a cameo in the film October Sky (from the window of a steam locomotive, of course). In 2001, Link suffered a heart attack near his home in South Salem and died.
Link’s work received worldwide recognition and has been exhibited widely throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. His photographs are held in major museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Getty Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk. Private collectors including Stephen Spielberg and Diane Keaton. Link’s rail photography is exhibited at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia—refurbished by the famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy—and is the only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to the work of one photographer.