O. Winston Link
Renowned critic and former Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, once called O. Winston Link “one of nature’s noble men, and a legitimate American genius and nut.”
Self taught in photography, O. Winston Link (born 1914) built his own enlarger while still in high school, and helped to process film and enlarge prints for a local photo store in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born and raised. Shortly after graduating in 1937 from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn with a degree in civil engineering, Link accepted a job as a photographer for Carl Byior and Associates, one of the country’s largest public relations firms. During World War II, Link worked on a Columbia University research project that developed detection equipment used by low flying aircraft to locate enemy submarines. Following World War II, Winston became an independent, freelance photographer specializing in industrial subjects.
In late January 1955, Link went to Staunton, Virginia on assignment. He had always loved steam locomotives, and was aware that the Norfolk and Western Railway, which passed through nearby Waynesboro, was the last major American railroad to operate exclusively with steam power, so he went to check it out. Completely enamored with what he saw, Link came back the next evening with his flash equipment and on January 21, 1955 made his first photograph of the N&W at night. He received permission from the company to make photographs on its right of way and Link decided to create a project showing how the railroad worked at night (although this idea expanded greatly as he work on the project, and he eventually worked at all hours of the day). Over the next five years Link made about twenty trips to the N&W’s 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. Trained as an advertising photographer to photograph people doing interesting things, Link created some of the most spirited and memorable images of rural American life ever captured on film. Viewing himself as more of a preservationist than artist, Link devoted himself to capturing images of the trains, the workers, and the communities that would fade away once steam locomotives were replaced with diesel locomotives which required less work to maintain. He financed the entire project himself, spending about $125,000 in today’s dollars, at a time when there was no proven demand for such pictures.
Link kept detailed notebooks illustrating his meticulous preparations for making photographs at night. He planned them using one of the basic laws of physics; that the angle of incidence of a light source is equal to the angle of its reflection. He would angle the lights back toward the camera to produce highlights on the locomotives and railroad cars moving through the darkness. Camera angles, lighting unit positions and exposure settings were all carefully recorded. He had special flash reflectors built, one of which could hold up to eighteen bulbs, for lighting huge areas. He used a power supply which he designed and built that could fire sixty flashbulbs at once, while at the same time tripping the shutters of three cameras, all perfectly synchronized together. Electrical cable connected the flash unit’s cameras and power supply, and Winston carried thousands of feet of it in a trailer towed behind his car. Photographs could take from several hours to days to set up, and there was only one opportunity to get the shot as the train sped by, sometimes at sixty miles per hour.
The last of the N&W’s steam locomotives were taken out of service in May 1960, and Winston returned to New York to continue his work as a commercial and industrial photographer. Link’s railroad photographs went largely unnoticed for more than twenty years after the completion of the project. In 1983 several museums in England and the United States organized exhibitions of the N&W photographs, and dealers began to sell them as well. It was shortly after this time that Link closed his studio in New York City and moved to a home in rural South Salem, a small town about fifty miles north of New York City.
Link’s railroad photographs gained additional attention when they became the center of a bitter divorce and criminal case in the mid 1990s. Link became the victim of a plot by his wife, Conchita Mendoza, and her lover, Ed Hayes, a man Link had previously hired to rebuild his prized steam locomotive. The criminal investigation and court case following the divorce lead on to Mendoza’s arrest and conviction of grand theft in the first degree stemming from her theft of approximately 1,400 photographs. She was subsequently sentenced to six to twenty years in prison. She served nearly five years in prison for this 1996 conviction. O. Winston Link suffered a heart attack and died near a train station in South Salem, New York on January 31, 2001, while attempting to drive himself to his doctor’s office.
In May 2003 Mendoza and Hayes, now her husband, where arrested during a sting operation as they tried to sell some of the stolen prints through a popular Internet auction site. Shortly thereafter a storage unit containing several hundred of Link’s signed enlargements and over 1,000 4×5 signed contact prints was discovered near her home in Pennsylvania. Mendoza and Hayes spent a year in jail awaiting trial. They both pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property. Hayes was released for time served, but Mendoza was returned to prison for almost another year for her part in the crime. The prints were returned to the O. Winston Link Trust where a few have since legitimately found their way on to the market.
On January 10, 2004 the 15,000-square-foot O. Winston Link Museum opened in Roanoke, Virginia. It is located in the N&W’s old passenger station, rebuilt in 1949 from designs by Raymond Loewy, the famed industrial designer. It is the only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to the work of one photographer. The museum houses the largest collection of the photographer’s work in the world, including hundreds of signed and posthumous prints. Much of the archival material related to the five year N&W documentation project is housed here as well, and eventually all 2,400 of Link’s N&W negatives and transparencies will be here too. The opening of the museum ensures that Link’s remarkable and unique vision will be preserved for future generations to come.
Soulcatcher Studio would like to thank Thomas H. Garver, author of “The Last Steam Railroad in America: Photographs by O. Winston Link“, for providing much of the information contained in this biography.
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