O. Winston Link, photographer
Photographs of the golden age of American Railroads continue to influence my photography
When I wanted to start creating more meaningful pictures, one of the artists I looked to for inspiration was O Winston Link. His best known images chronicle the final days of steam railroading on the Norfolk & Western Railway, the last American railroad to use the steam locomotive in a big way. Link, a native New Yorker (like myself), sought to represent the railroad as well as its surroundings — the people and rural enclaves that relied on the railroad as much as the railroad did on them.
It is this contextual sense which gives Link’s images, shot primarily at night with intricate flashbulb setups, a lasting importance as artistic and historical documents. In a country where the interstate and automobile have replaced the railroad as the heart-and-soul of small and mid-sized cities, Link’s images allow us to experience a time where things weren’t so easily accessible, where a forlorn steam whistle punctuated one’s day, and where the wanderlust of the steel rails beckoned many.
While the drama of steam engines are gone, the rails continue to beckon. My Railroad Landscape photographs continues Link’s interest in the railroad’s context. Since we are now looking at the contemporary railroad, a vast departure from the landscape of the 1950s, I had to approach the subject in a way that could not embrace the small-town life Link photographed. It doesn’t exist anymore — but what drew me were the railroad tracks as a metaphor for where we have been, where we are going, and what we see along the way.
The story of today’s railroad is one of resilience. The passenger train is no longer glamorized as it was during the height of its dominance. But the memories of the “great trains of yesteryear” remain for many: historic groups, railway preservation societies and the Center for Railroad Photography & Art work to preserve railroad history and contemporary ideas relating to it.
What also remains is the arterial network of rail lines continuing to serve the United States.