Lubricating Wristpin. Bluefield, West Virginia, 1955

O. Winston Link: Photographer Who Immortalized the Steam Era

Critics have said that American photographer Ogle Winston Link had an artist’s eye and an engineer’s mind.

He captured and froze in time the sights, sounds, and remarkable engineering of steam locomotives in their final days.

Young O. Winston Link

As a child, Link’s father, Albert, introduced him to some photo-shooting techniques, which sparked Link’s passion for photography.

The first camera that Link held in his hands was borrowed from a friend, but that didn’t stop him from starting to invent his own new photographic techniques and equipment.

For example, he created his own enlarger, which allowed him to print his photos at home.

In the documentary, Trains That Passed In The Night, Link describes his earliest experiences combining his affection for trains and picture taking:

I must’ve been 14 or 15 when I started taking pictures of trains. Friends would go over to Communipaw in Jersey City and we’d photograph the trains over there.

– O. Winston Link

The Blue Comet in Jersey City, Winston Link, 1933
The Blue Comet in Jersey City, Winston Link, 1933

Thanks to his newfound talent, Link got a job as a photo editor for the newspaper of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he graduated in 1937.

A few years later, Link moved up to working as a photographer for the public relations company, Carl Byoir and Associates. There, he learned valuable lessons about shooting in the field.

Link soon decided to dedicate himself entirely to photography, and it became his lifelong career.

Norfolk and Western Railway Project

The most important period of his career started in 1955 when he accepted a commercial assignment in Virginia. Link was staying in Staunton when he first noticed the Norfolk and Western Railway, which was the last, most significant steam railroad in the U.S., and it was slowly shutting down as the train industry moved to convert its operations from steam to diesel.

NW 1345 - Ghost Town, Stanley, Virginia, January 31, 1957
NW 1345 – Ghost Town, Stanley, Virginia, January 31, 1957

Link’s photographs preserve a time when the automobile era was still in its infancy, and steam-powered railroads were the main conduit connecting small towns in America.

Throughout the years, Link returned to Virginia many times to document the steam locomotives’ atmospheric beauty and their nearness to the people who worked and lived there.

Link was also taking photos along the routes in West Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. This project started as a hobby, but soon it was gladly approved by the Norfolk and Western officials, who inspired Link to find ways to make these photographs even better.

In the O. Winston Link documentary, What A Picture I Got!, Link himself describes collaborating with the engineers and workers on the trains to adjust scenes to his needs before he took specific photos.

The last steam locomotive was retired in May 1960, bringing Link’s N&W project to a close. The night photography techniques he developed during this five-year span sealed his legacy.

O. Winston Link Documentary

Pioneering Night Photography

Link developed new techniques to take photographs at night, producing stunning photos which today are considered classics in photography studies.

The main inspiration for Link to take pictures at night was the steam. He loved the fantastic contrast of white steam popping out against the dark sky. There’s something mystical about those machine-provided clouds that make the night look extraordinary.

Some of his best and most famous pieces using this technique are Hotshot Eastbound, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Pope Watch the Last Steam Powered Passenger Train, Ghost Town, Giant Oak, and Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole.

Scene Direction and Composition

Not only did he photograph his scenes, but he directed them as well.

Link enlisted the help of locomotive engineers to create the ideal scene for his photos, which was the case with his piece, Hotshot Eastbound.

Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia, July 1957
Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia, N&W, August 2, 1956

He took the photograph in 1956 in West Virginia. The main focus is the young couple sitting in Link’s car at a drive-in movie theater.

On the left side of the photograph, we see the movie screen with an airplane on it, which is a scene from the Korean movie Battle Taxi.

On the right side, a steam train passes on the tracks, its steam clouds billowing across the sky.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Link paid the couple — Willie Allen and Dorothy Christian — $10 to sit in his 1952 Buick convertible until the steam train passed.

The photo shows a couple witnessing the transition from the passenger rail era to the new modern transportation era.

Some photographers claim that Link added the airplane later to explain his point further, and others believe that it was taken at the moment just as he set it.

Regardless, it is a fantastic composition, especially considering that the digital altering techniques used in modern photography weren’t invented yet.

Hotshot Eastbound is considered Link’s signature work.

A year later, Link created the photo Mr. and Mrs. Ben Pope Watch the Last Steam Powered Passenger Train. Link played a lot with the lightning on this photo to make sure that the couple was the main focus. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they watch the steam train as it passes their house.

Shortly after, Link took the photo Giant Oak, which features an immense, old tree in the foreground and a steam train speeding past in the background. A tree of that grand stature takes an incredible amount of time to grow, but of course, it can’t grow on forever. Its presence in the photo may be an analogy that the mighty steam train’s time was coming to an end as well.

If we analyze these photographs further, we will see that in each one of them the steam train looks like it’s saying goodbye. It is like a ghost in the midst of the photos. However, in other pictures, we have to look very closely to find the train at all.

These night photographs are unique because the trains in them always look dramatic in the night alongside their perfectly sculpted steam clouds, illuminated by the magic of Link’s lighting techniques.

Photo of Link's camera and lighting equipment.
Some of Link’s camera and lighting equipment on display at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, VA.

In interviews, Link said that he preferred to take his shots at night because the artificial light could be easily manipulated, as opposed to working in the daylight when the sun could not be controlled.

When taking photos at night, Link could easily eliminate things he didn’t want to appear in the composition simply by not lighting them.

It’s this amazing game of light and dark which gives freedom to the photographer to liberate or constrain details in the picture according to his will.

Today we have digital tools, such as Photoshop, to help manipulate the lighting in a photo, but these technologies owe a great debt to Link’s technical innovations in the 1950s.

Color Photography

While Link focused mainly on black and white photographs, we can’t ignore the ones he made in color, such as General Store at Husk and Highball for the Double Header.

One picture he took called Maud Bows to the Virginia Creeper can be seen in color and in black and white versions.

Link made around 400 colored photographs, mostly in daylight when the sky was clear. Some critics have claimed his color photos show a lack of technical expertise, but most agree on the artistry of his composition.

Sound Recordings

Besides photographing the trains, Link also made audio recordings of the railroads, which he released as a series of six vinyl LPs, named Sounds of Steam Railroading. The liner notes have wonderful descriptions of each recording, such as this one describing the passing of Class Y6 compound articulated locomotive on the N&W Shenandoah Valley Line:

In the far hills a fast freight cries into the night. Its rumble and roll grow louder and louder as it approaches Lithia, Va. Then its whistle blasts a crossing signal and there is massive uproar as its drivers crash by. Then the steady clicking of car wheels as the merchandise train disappears into the southern hills.

– From liner notes of Sounds of Steam Railroading, Volume 1

Some of the original LPs (and CD versions) can still be found and purchased online, but here’s the entire first volume free to enjoy on YouTube!

After Link finished his project on the N&W Railway, some of his best photos showed up in the magazine Trains, and they became a huge inspiration for other photographers.

It took almost twenty years before his work was taken into consideration as truly valuable art. There were many photographers who were accepted as artists at the time, but Link’s work was typically considered old-fashioned.

Later Life

Link was called to take photos during the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Many of these photos can be seen in museums across America, which are also notable as part of his complete work.

In the meantime, Link got married to Conchita Mendoza. She was his second wife, who ultimately forced him out of his home and had a very bad influence on him. After ten years of marriage, Link decided to end it because he caught her stealing his photographs and his equipment. To defend herself, Conchita claimed that he had Alzheimer’s Disease and that she had the right to sell his work.

Mendoza was arrested for forging Link’s signature and selling pieces of his work for $300,000. She gave a fraction of this money to Edward Hayes, who was Conchita’s lover as well as an engineer who repaired locomotives for Link. She spent five years in prison, and never admitted that she committed grand theft. After her release, Conchita was caught again for the same crime and was sent back to prison. During that period, many rare editions of Link’s work were lost and never found.

O. Winston Link Museum

The loss of his work didn’t stop him from continuing to publish more work. After the second book of his train photographs was released, a museum in his honor was opened where all of his remarkable work can be seen.

The museum is located in Roanoke, Virginia, situated in the historic Norfolk and Western Railway passenger train station. Hundreds of photos — nearly 300 of the 2,500 train shots — along with some of his camera and lighting equipment and audio recordings provide a deep vision of Link’s life and work.

The museum includes six galleries, the most visited of which is the one displaying his famous night photographs and the equipment that he used to create them. It takes about an hour and a half to tour the whole exhibition, including a documentary movie about Link’s life.

Thanks to some long-term volunteers that work at the museum, the tour is even more interesting and very educational. Unfortunately, Link passed away before the museum opened in 2004, but he picked its location and helped with the planning, and it made him very proud to realize that his work had finally come to light.

Living Room on the Tracks, Lithia, Virginia, 1956
Living Room on the Tracks, Lithia, Virginia, 1956

He chose Roanoke because that was where he took his first steam train-shooting trips. Today, Link’s collection of photos stands as the most important photographic work of Virginia. After many exhibitions in other countries, his night photographs became known worldwide. In the early 1990s, a documentary movie about him was made, called Trains That Pass in the Night.

His Legacy

In 2012, Tony Reevy, who was an advisory editor of Railroad History and had written many articles about railroad photographers, published O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line. In it, he explains Link’s work and techniques in detail and unveils the history of the steam trains and the places and people that were involved in the N&W project.

Studying Link’s work helps to understand not only technical concepts in photography, such as location, the positioning of subjects, lighting, atmosphere, and composition. It also helps us appreciate art’s role in shining light on the powerful shifts in our culture as they’re happening. 

The most important documentarian of steam railroads was concerned not just about the changing technology, but primarily about the people who lived along the lines that were affected by it.

His role as “director” of his photographs reveals his intention to tell their stories, and his technical mastery helps us experience those stories.

Norfolk and Western Train No. 2, North through Lithia, Virginia
July 13, 1955, 7:11 P.M


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