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A One-Track Mind

In a new Roanoke museum, a train-loving town celebrates a photographer obsessed with steam locomotives.

By Amy Brecount White
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 3, 2004; Page C02

Roanoke is a lonesome train kind of town. Wander its renovated downtown streets and you're bound to hear a freight rumble through, bearing a load of who-knows-what to a warehouse who-knows-where. The engines are diesel now, instead of steam, and the modern air horn isn't quite as high and plaintive as the old steam whistles that used to shriek up and down Roanoke Valley. But Roanoke hasn't forgotten that earlier, more dramatic time of the big locomotive. The city's Historic Rail District has been almost completely renovated; a former freight depot has become the train-rich Virginia Museum of Transportation; and the old Norfolk & Western (N&W) passenger station now houses the O. Winston Link Museum, an unparalleled collection of photography and sound recordings from the region's age of steam.

The station-turned-museum, which opened in January, is alive with sounds gone by -- the bells, whistles and chugs of steam engines. Initially, the man who should be known as the Ansel Adams of train photography was better known for his railroad sound recordings. Push a button to elicit that industrial music.

Photographer O. Winston Link spent six days setting up this image, "Gooseneck Dam and Train No. 2, Maury River." (O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, Va.)

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Books, calendars and magazines (displayed in a case) often featured Link's shots, and chances are you've seen one. Some of his images, like the engines they captured, have attained a nearly mythic status. Peer into one case and the Hogwarts Express barrels toward you. (A Link photo graced a British version of the first Harry Potter book.)

An innovative kiosk lets you experiment with lighting three of Link's night photographs. Visitors can turn a light in a window on and off to see how one detail affects the overall composition. What if you backlit this or took out that set of lights? Link got it right in every shot.

Link loved the idea of his iconic train pictures being here. Before he died in 2001, he approved the museum's location because it gave his photos just the right context. It was from Roanoke that he began most of his train-shooting trips as the enthusiastic chronicler of a fading era. And from the old observation deck, you can still look eastward to the workshops where the N&W made its engines.

Roanoke, surrounded by gentle mountains, is just a friendly and picturesque place. Outdoor vendors hawk everything from fresh meat to tie-dye at the historic downtown farmers' market. In addition to the Link Museum, the Center in the Square complex boasts enough museums and theaters (including the Science Museum of Western Virginia) to keep train buff and non-buff alike happy for a weekend.

With the railroad setting outside and the museum minutiae inside the Link Museum, it's easy to feel immersed in life along the old N&W, as Link himself was from 1955 to 1960.

He took nearly 2,500 shots of the trains and their people in that half-decade. About 300 of them are on display here in six small galleries named after N&W divisions. The most famous -- and striking -- are the ones photographed at night.

On one level, Link's photos are documentation. But there is something transcendent and timeless about them, too. You know, as you gaze into the eyes of a proud conductor dwarfed by his shining engine or as you walk in on station agent Gladys Harriger stitching up a quilt between trains at White Top, that the era is gone forever. The photos are nostalgic and personal and deep, both in their subject matter and texture.

Like the more famous Adams, Link achieved a wide range of tones. To call the photographs "black-and-white" seems inadequate. Link "sculpted with light," as one museum text states.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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