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Melancholy or Nostalgia?

The work of the American railroad photographer O Winston Link. . . . . .

Perhaps you might indulge me a little this week, as I move away, briefly, from the NRM collection and consider railway art. Well, photography, to be specific.

Back in 2008 Liverpool staged an exhibition to celebrate its status as European City of Culture. It was called ‘Art in the Age of Steam’ in the Walker Gallery. I went along and browsed my way through the exhibits, many of which featured the usual suspects – Turner, Hopper, Monet, Frith. It was a popular show and I recall overhearing one conversation between a greybeard and a couple of female companions: ‘Oh yes, I’ve been four times already’. Near the end my eye was caught by a series of small black and white photos mounted on a plain white wall. At first they appeared to show, frame by frame, a locomotive closing on the rear of another train, viewed from the rear coach as the large boiler drew ever nearer – an alarming collision perhaps? But then I realised it was in reverse, a locomotive dropping back after banking a train up an incline.

The photos were the work of O Winston Link (1914- 2001), an American photographer working mainly in black and white.Some of you may know of him. During the period 1955-1960 Link found himself photographing the last years of steam on the Norfolk and Western Railroad, working coal trains in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.The locomotives themselves were monsters and, if you aren’t familiar with Link’s work, you might assume they show yet more ‘three quarter’ views of steam locomotives at work.But Link knew he was photographing the last days of steam – changing technology but also changing times in West Virginia.Link turned his photographs into an art form, giving them added meaning by careful compositions to make a point.

There is ‘Hotshot Eastbound’, for example, which features a scene at a drive-in movie at night, with a couple in a car watching a shot of an aircraft on the screen while a steam hauled express thunders by. Image: O.Winston Link.

Or what about ‘Maud bows to the Virginia Creeper’ which shows a cart horse with its head bowed, bedside a goods shed waiting for steam locomotive at full throttle, to pass before it. Some are positively elegiac.

Link was meticulous in planning and executing his photographs. Typically taken at night and carefully posed, the lighting effects often featured dozens of flash bulbs going off simultaneously and carefully placed. He used heavy and complex equipment which was carried around laboriously from place to place. The result is so distinctive in style, composition and subject that it’s hard to mistake a print of Link’s work. Art historians sometimes discuss ‘romantic melancholy’ and ‘romantic nostalgia’ in art works but I rather think that, in Link’s case, the distinction is superfluous. The pictures are both melancholic and nostalgic for a passing age, so much so that I would be hard pressed to find a similar body of work, either in painted art or in photographs.

Back in Liverpool I spent some time staring at the small images of the banking locomotive dropping back from its task. ‘The photographs are symbolic of steam’s role,’ the cation read, ‘pushing forward before dropping back into history.’ Quite a statement but I think Link would have nodded approvingly.

An elderly couple stand on their porch in the night watching a steam powered train pass at speed in ‘Last Steam Locomotive Run on the Norfolk and Western, Radford Division, December 31st 1957.’ Image: O.Winston Link.


John Swanwick

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