Steam, Steel, and Stars (the night-time railway photographs of O Winston Link)

This is a post about trains and photography; black and white photography; night-time, black and white photography from the USA during the 1950s. This is a post about O Winston Link.

Link was born in New York during 1914. His early training was as an commercial photographer for big US industrial clients. His photographs were used in promoting American industrial power in magazines such as Fortune.

Link was on working in Virginia, during 1955, when he contacted the Norfolk and Western Railway. The N&W was, by virtue of their enthusiasm, the last of the railways in the US to use steam power. Link conceived of a plan to photograph these trains at night, using thousands of flash bulbs.

The technical problems of the set-up should not be underestimated. Back in the 1950s, camera equipment was big and heavy. Working in low light conditions or darkness required the use of big lights. Working with industrially scaled objects, in motion, required short exposure times and massive blasts of light across whole landscapes. Link conceived of his pictures as a conjunction of machine, civic detail and human interest.

The trains are travelling at 60mph. So, you need a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. To get that at night you need 100000 x 100 watt lights, or 60 flash bulbs. The flashbulbs were wired up into reflectors in series. If one bulb failed, the whole picture was lost!

The conjunction of elements, conceptualised by Link, could be orchestrated with precision, according to the train timetable, but not controlled. So, each shot required careful planning and a some luck too.

Link’s project was obviously about railway engines and steam power; but it was also about the idea of the railway as an industry and a lifeline for the community. Indeed, Link’s images of 1950s small-town America are testimony to the discipline, responsibilities, excitements and pleasures of the railway passing through…

The Norfolk and Western ran from Norfolk, on the eastern seaboard at Chesapeake Bay, inland to Cincinnati with several branches of. The engine works were at Roanoak, Virginia. It’s entirely appropriate that the O Winston Link Museum is at Roanoak. You can link to it, here

There’s information about O Winston Link, here

There are a number of books, exhibitions and film documentaries about Link too.



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