SHEPHERDSTOWN – Nearly 12 years after he was laid to rest alongside family members here, famed train photographer O. Winston Link is back in the national spotlight with a new collection of his images.
Filled with 180 photographs taken by Link between 1955 and 1960 as the Norfolk & Western Railway made the transition to diesel, “Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Last Great Steam Railroad” has merited praise in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other high-profile publications.
The 240-page book features Link’s trademark: carefully composed black-and-white portraits taken in the dark of night. Among the iconic images is “Hot Shot Eastbound,” a 1956 composition made at the drive-in in Iaeger in McDowell County near the Kentucky border.
But the book also features some of Link’s work rarely seen, such as candid shots of N&W workers on the job, photos taken in daytime and in color, variations on his best-known portraits and even modernist stills of locomotives.
Another treat in “Life Along the Line” is a poignant afterword written by Link’s only offspring, who endured long, unwanted separations from his father both during his childhood and in father’s later years.
Conway Link writes of the twists and turns in his father’s long career as well as the challenges Link faced in his personal life, including the drama that ensued after his second marriage to a woman later sent to prison for stealing Link’s images and equipment.
In the book, Conway Link writes of seeing his father for the final time in 2000, at a memorial for a family member at Elmwood Cemetery. Link died just months later, in early 2001, after a heart attack at age 86. In the years since, Link’s gravesite has become something of a mecca for railroad buffs and photography fans.
The work that would make Link’s name began in January of 1955 after he’d traveled to a factory in Staunton, Va., for a commercial assignment to photograph window air conditioners.
With his workday complete, he hurried to watch a Norfolk & Western steam engine pass by in Waynesboro, Va. He’d read that the N&W was about to start the transition to diesel, following suit with its counterparts around the country.
He soon decided to invest his own money to chronicle the steam engine’s last hurrah.
By the time the N&W retired its last steam engine five years and four months later, Link had taken some 2,400 photographs of people and locomotives. The works, however, wouldn’t attract attention until a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art years later.
Trained as a civil engineer at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Link was unfazed by the complicated logistics required to capture trains moving at night at up to 60 miles per hour. To get the lighting he wanted, he developed a complex synchronized flash system that could take days to set up – all to get a single shot.
Some of the most-recognized photographs in the new book were taken in West Virginia, but in coal country south of Charleston. Link didn’t shoot any of his famous portraits in the Eastern Panhandle, where his father was born in 1882 and where many cousins and other relatives still live.
When Albert Link was growing up in Duffields, the hamlet was one of the stops along the Baltimore & Ohio line between Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg. Now it’s one of three Eastern Panhandle stops made each weekday by the MARC commuter train.
There is speculation that Albert Link learned to love the railroad as a boy and then passed along his passion for trains when Ogle Winston Link was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 16, 1914. The senior Link, who taught woodworking in the New York City public school system, also is credited with introducing his young son to photography.
Link did not live long enough to see what is perhaps the most enduring tribute to his painstaking work: the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Va.
Housed since 2004 in the renovated Norfolk & Western Railway passenger train station built in 1905, the museum is home to seven galleries that showcase 300 of his railroad photos.
Today, Link’s photographs also can be seen at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
To coincide with the new book, the Roanoke museum will unveil a “Life Along the Line” exhibition featuring selections that appear in the book as well as new prints from the museum’s archives. The show will be unveiled to the public Saturday and will remain on display through Feb. 11.
Closer to home, “Life Along the Line” can be seen first-hand at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown. It’s also available at the Roanoke museum’s gift shop and online.
Want to go?
What: Opening reception for O. Winston Link’s “Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Last Great Steam Railroad,” with Tony Reevy, the North Carolina-based railroad expert who wrote the book’s text
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: O. Winston Link Museum, 101 Shenandoah Ave., N.E. in Roanoke, Va.
How much: Reception costs $5 or free to museum members
For details: Call 540-982-6956 or go to Linkmuseum.org