Stories of Steam Locomotives
O. Winston Link’s photos are nostalgic narratives that capture a lost era.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FRIDAY, APRIL 18
1950 B S. Hilbert Street
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
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
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.