Monday, October 02, 2006

Last Train Home - O Winston Link

Last train home

(An edited version of this article appeared in The Bulletin, 13.1.2005)

His Anytown USA nostalgia is gripping. So why isn't O. Winston Link as well-known as Rockwell or Hopper, asks Paul Stump

In his travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux writes, "I never saw a train go by without wishing I was on it". Admirers of O. Winston Link's photography will know what he means.

Link was born into a lower-middle-class Brooklyn family in 1914. A youthful aptitude for photography became a lucrative profession in the 1940s and then a patriotic calling in World War Two. Link's army base overlooked the Pennsy - the New York-philadelphia mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which appealed to the young man's love of trains.

After the war, Link became one of New York's most respected photo-journalists. "He was one of the old school... he specialised in what was then called industrial photography," assistant Thomas H Garver recalls. At the time, Link, like many rail fans, was casting an askance eye on the ongoing substitution of diesel power for steam across in the US. On assignment in Virginia in 1955, Link made a detour to the small town of Waynesboro to check out the locos of the Norfolk and Western Railroad (N&W), the country's last all-steam line. What he found on that cold, crisp evening so bewitched him that he began a quest to record for posterity the sighs of a disappearing America.

Only two trains came and went that icicle-hung night; but what remained with Link was the craggy faces of the engineers under their Kroner caps and bandanas; the bib overalls; the pot-bellied stoves; the rattle of the telegraph; stately old timepieces and, above all, the elemental size and annihilating power of the locomotives themselves. It kindled a Herculean five-year endeavour that endured until the final steam run on the N&W in 1960 - and would then become one of photography's most exalted portfolios.

"Winston kept his overheads low," explains Garver. "This allowed him to cherry-pick his assignments." Only in this way could he attempt this entirely non-commercial endeavour on the N&W, whose Public Relations chief, Ben Dulaney, received a letter with two trial photographs from Link's Waynesboro expedition shortly's request was - in theory anyway - simple. He wanted access to as much of the railway as psosible to "make a series of well-planned night photographs of exceptional quality showing the railroad at work as the passenger sleeps. For human interest, I would like to show an employee in every picture." The N&W acceded to Link's every demand.

Two types of locomotive dominate the resulting images; the high-speed J Class 4-6-2 Pacifics, all streamlined Deco-and-Fins elegance, and the colossal articulated 2-8-8-2 Y6s, 35m long, as powerful as a small airliner and capable of haulting 100-car freights over steep Allegheny gradients. Unusually, these machines were built by the N&W themselves at Roanoke, the hub of the network.

The N&W had one stipulation. Link was to avoid pictures of engines issuing black smoke. Only white smoke, emblematic of economical coal burning (although this WAS still the South, one could remark ironically today) was permissible. To this end, Link demanded, and got, the power to stop trains belching black smoke and have them run past him with their fireboxes full of fresh coal for the desired effect. He even asked the N&W to introduce single-line running in a tunnel under the Virginia town of Williamson, the better to capture a bloodcurdling picture of a Y6 thundering through the Stygian gloom of the brick-lined bore.

The pictures ring with the sound of the chimney's gnawing blast; the implacable thrash of pistons; the mournful D minor sigh of the chime whistle signalling lonely Appalachian cabins to extinguish the last lamp; the conductor's singsong litany of destinations culminating in a long-drawn 'all aboooooooard!'

Link was a Romantic, but he was no Norman Rockwell. He was not a poet of a sunnily immutable small-town America, but a poor country whose fabric of market forces and history. The prosperity that produced the saloons and convertibles in his pictures could never have existed without the industrial efforts of whose last breaths are recorded in the steam and smoke of the N&W's giants.

When Link was taking the pictures, America was, nominally, a place of progress, chrome, the miraculous Atom, the Jet Age, exponential improvement. Duane Eddy, it was confidently predicted, would soon be playing gigs on Mars. At a time when it was always morning in America, Link showed the nocturnal flipside- what was vanishing. The machinery and culture that made the Great Society were its first victims.

Link took over 2,500 pictures in four years. He became a legend along the tracks, not least for the preparations for his shots, rituals that occassionally assumed the proportions of a military operation. Sometimes over half a kilometre of wire would be laid, threaded over roads, through and around buildings and woods, to synchronise up to 66 flashbulbs. One memorable shot of Link himself sees him crossing an improvised rope-bridge above a raging torrent to secure more connections. Says one of Link's friends; 'Winston was like a Hollywood director. He knew what the shot was gonna be. He needed total control." For particularly elaborate shots, locals would be cleared from the shooting area; nobody ever complained.Garver recalled that those who took the Link team into their homes treated them "like movie stars".

The faces of older locals are among the most resonant delights of Link's oeuvre. Assembled on a veranda, around the stove in a general store, features corrugated by a lifetime's cares, they are placed in close proximity to the line and to the locals. By contrat, the young appear indifferent, apart from small boys waving enthusiastically at the engineers. Link's nephew, Orville, cruises the local poolside talent as a J-class streamliner charges past. The lovers spooning on the bench seat of a Plymouth saloon, at the drive in or the gas station, are looking anywhere but at the trains. On the drive-in screen a jet plane swoops, showing the future is here, is now. Meanwhile, the trains, ignored, flee shrieking into the past.

Link's work confirms that the N&W ran through people's lives like lettering through seaside rock; in one picture, only the driving wheels and side-rods of a passing J can be seen through the window of an elabtorate living room, but they remain the cynosures of our gaze.

Link's N&W work was intensely personal, not intended for public display; such multilayered beauty that commercial outlets like railway means did not have the editorial or technical means to reproduce. The late 1960s produced other gifted abstract railway photographers, notably Britain's Colin Gifford and Germany's G√ľnter Haslbeck. Both found a cult niche market - Link did not. It was in the early 80s that galleries in the UK and France finally discovered him. His onetime obsession suddenly made him a rather reluctant minor celebrity, a status he bore with hardboiled Brooklyn alacrity. He was still a working 'industrial photogapher', after all, and remained so until the end of his life in 2001.

Theroux's words are those of an optimist; Link's images are those of a pessimist, or nostalgist. Every one of his trains is heading into the darkness, and the light falls only on what is surely to soon follow it into an everlasting night. Link's trains, ghosts-in-waiting howling in the blackness, remind us how fast time passes; yet rarely in the history of documentary photography has the vanishing of an era been rendered so timeless.

1 comment:

pressure vessels said...

the photos are amazing. these shots are an instant classic.