If you love photography and are fascinated with trains, you won't be disappointed if you visit the O. Winston Link museum in downtown Roanoke, co-located with the Tourist Center in the old train station. The Norfolk & Western (N&W) railroad was home to the last active use of steam engines from the industrial era of the United States. Operations ended around 1960.
Dedicating A Personal Fortune To Train Photography
Photographer O. Winston Link spent the equivalent of about $125,000 (in year 2000 dollars) of his own money to photograph the J611, 1218, and remaining steam locomotives of the day through hauntingly detailed nighttime still photos (and some video) in action between 1957-1960. Photo shoots took place in Roanoke and surrounding areas under the control of the Norfolk & Western railroad.
Link specialized in nighttime photography. All of his photo shoots featured elaborate setups with flashbulb stations placed around the areas where trains would pass through. In some instances, he'd spend a week to lay out up to a mile of electric cable to flashbulb stations to ensure he'd get his only shot.
The photographs are nothing less than stunning. But the museum provides added value to the visitor with detailed, behind-the-scenes explanations of how he made the photos. There's even a display that provides access to the extensive cabling Link used to coordinate his nighttime flash photography shoots. Visitors can “feel there way” into Link's world by touching these cables and adjacent equipment.
DOCUMENTING THE LIVES OF RAILROAD WORKERS THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY
A Brooklyn, N.Y. native, Link was fascinated with life in rural America. He worked as a commercial photographer in the New York City area. At various times, a project would take him out of area and into the countryside. On one such trip, he became interested in steam engines.
During his three year photographic odyssey, Link took black and white still photos of railroad workers. He was the talk of the town on those occasions he'd arrive for a shoot. Some viewed him as a welcome celebrity. Others viewed him as a somewhat eccentric oddity lugging around miles of cables, cartons of flashbulbs, and spending days setting up his Rolleiflex camera and gear for a shoot.
But the Norfolk & Western understood the value of his work. They gave Link a key to their rail switching stations ensuring the cooperation of their engineers with Link to stage his shots.
Link was a perfectionist, focusing only on his work. His work is now preserved in this wonderful display appropriately titled Life Along the Line: New Selections from the O. Winston Link Museum Archives.
Like many perfectionists obsessed with the details of his work, he had failures in judgment outside his area of expertise —in his case — women. He was known to “have fun” during his long shooting engagements in Roanoke. His second wife defrauded him and stole photos and negatives worth more than $1.4 million. She was sent to prison. Sadly, Link died in 2001 before any of the photos and negatives were recovered. But he did live to see the construction of his exhibit in this museum.
Link is known as the most famous photographer of steam engine locomotives for good reason. This museum is a gripping and fascinating tribute to the man, his works, and the industrial train era of the United States.
On a personal note, our visit to this museum harkens back some memories for me from the 1960's. I miss the days of black and white photography and using old twin lens reflex and Rolleiflex cameras in my photography courses at college back in the day. Links' work rekindles a passion for the practices of yesteryear for all of us photography buffs.
Until next time … Tom @ RoverTreks