Kat Murrell
Visual Art

Stories of Steam Locomotives

O. Winston Link’s photos are nostalgic narratives that capture a lost era.

By - Apr 18th, 2014 01:10 pm
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee
Photographs by O. Winston Link are currently on view at the Grohmann Museum. Photo courtesy http://www.greatamericanthings.net

Photographs by O. Winston Link are currently on view at the Grohmann Museum. Photo courtesy http://www.greatamericanthings.net

It’s a warm, rural 1950s night by a swimming pool where a boy from New York City sits chatting with three local girls who listen with varying degrees of melancholy and attention. Outside the pool enclosure, one of the last steam locomotives on the Norfolk and Western Railroad puffs its way through the night. The man capturing the scene, O. Winston Link, made a name for himself as a photographer of trains, but he deftly combined the muscle of industry with sensitive nuances of stories occurring alongside the iron tracks

The 36 photographs in Trains That Passed In the Night: The Railroad Photographs of O. Winston Link were the result of his job to take pictures of air conditioners in Staunton, Virginia, a job he held in the postwar years. But his interest in trains prompted him to visit the nearby town of Waynesboro to check out the trains along the Norfolk and Western Railway, one of the last places where steam-powered locomotives chugged along with freight and passengers. Enchanted, Link ended up coming back again and again over the course of five years, taking pictures along the rail line until the last of the steam engines ran in 1960.

Hester Fringer's living room on the tracks. Lithia, Virginia, December 16, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum / theatlantic.com)

Hester Fringer’s living room on the tracks. Lithia, Virginia, December 16, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum / theatlantic.com)

Link encapsulates this time through photographic vignettes set in old-time general stores, railroad offices operating with paper records and telegraph communications, and trains passing alongside house porches and  outside living room windows. He made the acquaintance of people living alongside the rail line in order to make pictures that revealed their private lives, juxtaposed against the transient trains outside. There’s Hester Fringer, for instance, who was such a fan of trains that she had a great big picture window in her living room so she could see them speeding past. A photograph shows her young grandson waving to the passing cars while his unimpressed mother uncomfortably lounges in a recliner. Three curled up cats and the sleeping dog on the living room rug are quite unbothered by the roaring rumble from outside.

Even if you’re not into trains, these photographs are fascinating because of Link’s storytelling ability. The photographs have a candid quality, as though the lens happened to flicker at just the right moment. There is a bit of fiction in that notion, however, as a documentary video accompanying the exhibition reveals. One memorable example is his picture of a couple out for an evening date, stopped by the tracks where a man in overalls pumps gas into their car. The simplicity of the station pump and the proximity of the N&W train cruising past suspend a casual moment, but the scene was organized in advance. After all, trains don’t just appear out of nowhere, there are schedules to keep.

Link’s meticulous planning and technique make his images appear effortless but the logistics of capturing trains speeding through the night amid the dim lights of towns and pale plumes of smoke were daunting. It required unorthodox techniques and specialized, custom equipment, which is also interestingly pictured. The photographer’s experimental side is highlighted in images such as Ghost Train – Freight, Norfolk, Virginia, which combines a time exposure image of the Virginia Electric Power Company in the distance and an instantaneous flash photograph of the train as it finally passed.

O. Winston Link, Ghost Train, courtesy Danziger Gallery, https://artsy.net

O. Winston Link, Ghost Train, courtesy Danziger Gallery, https://artsy.net

Link’s skill at capturing a moment brilliantly, through narrative and in dramatically lit fashion, make this an exhibition worth catching before it leaves town.

Trains That Passed in the Night: The Railroad Photographs of O. Winston Link is at the Grohmann Museum (1000 N. Broadway) through April 27.

 

THIS WEEKEND 

 

FRIDAY, APRIL 18 

Some Nights - Usable SpaceSome Nights When Nothing Happens

Missing You

Usable Space

1950 B S. Hilbert Street

6-9pm

Kristopher Benedict curates and shows his work alongside New York artists Jackie Gendel, Halsey Rodman, and Peter LaBier in Some Nights When Nothing Happens, the first exhibition of the 2014 season at Usable Space, while Kristina Rolander presents her installation Missing You in the courtyard garden.

 

SATURDAY, APRIL 19 

Kenilworth Open Studios

Kenilworth Square East

Peck School of the Arts

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

1925 E. Kenilworth Place

11am-2pm

There will be a lot to see during the three hour open house in the Peck School of the Arts building, featuring art exhibitions, music, theatre, dance, film screenings and other activities. For a schedule of activities see their events page.

 

Chris Berti: Concerning Nature 

The Figure in Clay 

Tory Folliard Gallery 

233 N. Milwaukee Street

It’s the last day to check out the current exhibition of ceramic works at Tory Folliard Gallery, with inventive, fanciful creatures by numerous artists. For a review of this show, see TCD’s The Woman with the Feline Ears.

 

0 thoughts on “Visual Art: Stories of Steam Locomotives”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I saw this show and heard a lecture by its curator at the Grohmann Museum, and it’s definitely worth seeing! Thanks for the review!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us