The publication this month of “Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Last Great Steam Railroad” (Abrams) by O. Winston Link, which coincides with a new exhibition at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, offers jubilant cause to celebrate the mechanical majesty of these trains — and the landscape they left behind.
Coming 11 years after his death, this volume makes a strong case for Link being the most important documentarian ever of the railroads. His particular genius was that he could make trains come so fully to life in print that the pages practically rattle from the locomotion.
Link was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, where his mother and father had relocated after growing up in Virginia and West Virginia, respectively. As a teenager, Link got a hands-on education with photography when he landed a job printing pictures at a drugstore. Later, at what was then called the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, he shot for the school newspaper. Upon graduation, he landed a position as a photographer for a large PR firm in New York. (Due to partial deafness, he would be kept out of military service.) Early on, Link favored conceptual, elaborately staged shoots, and for the next five years, he honed his craft.
In 1942 he married model Marteal Oglesby from Louisiana; the marriage resulted in a son, Conway, but fell apart soon after. Marteal and Conway returned to Louisiana. Conway saw little of his father — or so the boy thought. He was unaware that Link returned to Louisiana on occasion, showing up at his son’s school, camera in hand. Or he’d stay with the family of one of Conway’s friends, Fritz Williams, posing as an uncle so he could get up-close glimpses of Conway during play dates.
Link set out on his own as a freelancer, racking up clients such as Alcoa and Texaco. In 1955, he was on assignment for Westinghouse in Staunton, Va., and took a quick drive for a gander at the N&W station in Waynesboro. Link, already a long admirer of trains, had been tipped off that the N&W was running some of the last steam locomotives. Still, he couldn’t have been prepared for the impact the depot would have on him.
He felt the sensation of walking onto a movie set preserved from the 1930s. Here was a telegraph machine, a clerk’s eyeshade hanging off a clipboard, a bare light bulb hovering over a desk of train schedules. Link came back the next night with his Graphic camera, but the real flash of light that went off was in his head. He soon decided to document the last days of steam engines. The railroad happily gave him total access, and he learned the ins and outs of the line, familiarizing himself with its destinations. What he couldn’t have known was where, in the end, the project would take him.