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Friday, 14 September 2012


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Strobist? He used great big flash bulbs, not strobes! Link was a genius in flash bulb lighting on a grand scale.

BTW, that is an F-86 Sabre jet. They played a very significant role in the Korean War.

Better than calling it an OWL link, which connects to an ornithology site.

Print collectors will be familiar with the sad tale of his former wife, who was arrested for stealing and selling his prints, leading to lots (so to speak) of confusion.

Just down the street from the O Winston museum is the Virginia museum of transportation which houses some of those old steam engines. It is well worth seeing if any of your readers get to Roanoke for the exhibition.


It's a lovely museum down there in Roanoke... stopped in traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway on my way to the Smoky Mountains a few years back. Gorgeous prints, well worth going out of your way to see.

Never heard of this collection - thanks for bringing it to my attention. I can't imagine the set up for these images, working around a railroad schedule as well as all the other pieces that had to come together for each scene. Not to mention the miles of cable for all the lights!

Very cool. Love the way the steam clouds from the locomotives retain detail in the highlights.

There are two OWL documentaries too that are both worth watching if you can find them. Both were made by the British documentary filmmaker, Paul Yule.

The first was for a Channel 4 (UK) series called "Loco". OWL revisits and re-stages some of his most famous shots.

O. Winston Link: Trains That Passed in the Night
Produced and directed by Paul Yule (1990)

The second is much darker: more a thriller than a photo documentary (no spoilers).

The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover
Produced and directed by Paul Yule (2005);

Although he was a professional photographer he was truly passionate about steam locomotives and railways. He started documenting the Norfolk and Western when he released it was going to loose it's steam locomotives. He not only photographed but shot extensive movies and made sound recordings of the steams locos over a period of 5 years. A fine example of using a passion to drive a photography project.

The project to photograph the passing of the Norfolk and Western used a photographic style with meticulously set up and posed "sets" (with trains running on a regular schedule) that belonged stylistically to the photography of the 1930s plus some excellent technical innovation in the use of flash. It was so out of sync with art photography of the late 1950s that people would have laughed had they known about it. Even though Hotshot, Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia looks like pop art from Roy Lichtenstein with the F-86 Sabre on the screen. The photos didn't emerge until the 1970s when his sound recordings became popular rail enthusiasts when he released them on LPs then the photos appeared in railfan magazines. Then the art world noticed.

And finally ...

What does the O in O. Winston Link stand for?

Ogle Winston Link.

If that's not a case of nominative determinism I don't know what is.

That second photo of the women with the train in the window reminds me of a house I stayed in once, just about that close to the tracks. Hard to believe people got used to it and slept through the night, but they did. Pretty much met the definition of "unholy racket."

Dammit Mike; stop that. You're making me buy too many new books. I just received my copy of Walker Evans' American Photographs this morning (and it's fabulous). Now I've got to buy the Link book. I already have two of his older books, but reproduction quality of both is middling at best, so...

Amazing - everything in the whole photo screams "1950s" from the cars, clothes, plane and train - it's like a collage but it isn't one.

I like how the photo of the diesel electrics is in color, and the photos of the steam locos are all B/W.

"Featured Comment by Mike Plews: 'I love OWL...' "

Who? Who??

Steam, Steel, and Stars", Link's earlier work is awfully nice and has great reproductions. Nothing compares to seeing the prints up close though. He was a true professional and a master printer.

Run, do not walk, to the Link museum in Roanoke. Outstanding, and in the middle of the museum one gets to peer into Winston's darkroom setup just as he used it. I think the other visitors to the exhibits were wondering why I had my nose pressed up against the glass.

I have two of OWL's other books, "Last Steam Railroad in America" and "Steam, Steel and Stars", both great books with a lot of technical information.
If I remember correctly, after a few of his photos made it back to the N&W main offices (in Roanoke no less), he no longer had to work around the railroads schedule. They gave him permission to hold trains for a brief period to allow the decisive moment to occur.
I saw some of his photos in Rochester NY years ago and they are photographs that need to be seen large to be appreciated.

I have "Steam Steel and Stars, Photographs of O. Winston Link," from 1987. Nice duotone on heavy but not super glossy paper. I suppose with digital pre-press one can do even better now.

But strobe is simply the wrong word. It's FLASH! (Not from Adobe.)

Just an FYI for TOP readers, the image of the F86 Sabre jet wasn't actually photographed from the drive-in movie screen. Instead the image was physically pasted into place and the composite image was rephotographed to create a new print negative. I've actually seen the paste up print as part of an exhibit of his work though I can't recall where.

Wow, how did he get that many Pocket Wizards in the 1950s?

Just to let the TOP readers know, the bicycle handlebars can be seen leaning against the speaker pole just to the right of the right side door of the convertible in the foreground!

I live close to the Link Museum and have been a couple of times. A local photography group I'm involved with (Exposure.Roanoke) has held events there. You should see the lighting equipment!

Beautiful prints on display too and some of the camera equipment he used. I really need to get there again just to visit for a proper look around.

I remember Battle Taxi.

Erm Mike, how about putting up a UK link for Brits interested in buying the book.

Interesting question: Would anyone even LET you take a shot like that now? Some jobsworth would chase you out complaining about "security" within 20s. How badly will the 21st century's documentary record be censored by lack of access?

Mr. Link, an old favorite...

I've always loved that image of the room scene with the woman on the couch looking sort of strung out..like the bride of Frankenstein with a more conservative hairdo...she looks like she could use a dose of Mother's Little Helper.

We stop in the Roanoke/Salem area when driving from New Jersey to Atlanta every year or two. The Link Museum is well worth the trip - went through it with my oldest a couple of years ago. The museum's standing exhibit is wonderful - displaying and explaining the equipment along with the photographs really adds a lot.

It's across the tracks from the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which has (among other things) the last Norfolk & Western Class A and Class J steam locomotives in existence. You can get a joint admission for both museums.

I have been a fan of Link's work for nearly three decades now and it has been a significant influence on my own nighttime photography.

Way back in 2010, I finally had the opportunity to see a few of his prints (at the Etherton Gallery in Tucson) and unfortunately, I found it to be a bit of a mixed experience, as the prints weren't quite as nice as I'd hoped they'd be, but at the same time, they were noticeably better than the reproductions in the books that I own.

Here's hoping this most recent book (which I've ordered) will help close this gap between the two media!

Without Winston Link's photography skills none of us would have been able to see and understand what the
1950's Norfolk & Western was really like. Diesels took over the railways in the USA (not so much in Canada)
and the photographs illustrate the post WWII changes
of the world as it was then. As an early (1946) baby
boomer (my father was not eligible for military service due to health reasons) I was raised in anera of realchange, and in retrospect happier times.
The world is better in some ways as a result of those
years, OWL's images tell it all so well.

I have one small quibble about light stands appearing in many of Link's photos. I just looked through both "Steam, Steel, and Stars" and "Last Steam Railroad in America" and I only saw 2 additional photos where the reflectors were visible, both similar in composition to the drive-in photo with a strong foreground element and the train as a distant background element. Granted, I may have missed one or two others, but Link was a master at concealing his lighting equipment. Looking at the light, you can tell were it is coming from, but the equipment is always well hidden if it is in the frame. He would put it behind boxes, carts, sides of buildings, and other items in the photograph. If someone is holding a lighted lantern in the photo, you can be sure there is a flash bulb in it. Bulbs in lights was the one area where Link couldn't completely hid things. You can frequently see the wire that set off the flash, because as someone noted, pocket wizards were very rare, and QUITE expensive in the 1950's.

In the drive-in picture, just noticed that the only people visible are in the convertible, meaning the picture was a setup with borrowed cars or the patrons were not watching the show.

"Interesting question: Would anyone even LET you take a shot like that now?"

No doubt it would be harder now, but OWL's project was an ongoing one and he had the cooperation of the railway, to the point of being able to hold trains for a few minutes (or so I read yesterday). Usually, permission from a big player goes a long way towards securing permission from the smaller players (the theater owner, for example, in this case).

Carl could speak to this as he's just photographed many dozens of drive-in theaters, many abandoned but some still in operation--and sometimes with similar equipment, too (view cameras on tripods). Albeit without the extensive lighting equipment.


"In the drive-in picture, just noticed that the only people visible are in the convertible, meaning the picture was a setup with borrowed cars or the patrons were not watching the show."

I don't know about that--the car just above the convertible is clearly occupied, and it looks to me like the one to the right of that one has a person in it too. Can't see much more in the tiny JPEG...maybe someone with one of the books could chime in?

Remember that people didn't necessarily stay in driver's seat for shows--those old cars had bench seats and people moved around and made themselves comfortable, sometimes in the back seats. The car on the left, in front of the convertible, looks like it could have a couple of heads straight above the license plate, although I can't really tell from the JPEG.


Link has a cameo appearance in the 1999 film October Sky. He is, fittingly, the engineer on a passing steam locomotive. It's a very good film - charming.

Yes, absolutely, the driven-in photo was a set-up, as were all of Links N&W photographs, but it wasn't a fake. The movie was real, the car was his, the two people in the car had signed model releases. Link was a commercial photographer and he always got signed model releases from everyone in his photos.

As for set-up, it wasn't unusual for him to take the better part of a day or night to get the photo set up. In 1957 he won the professional class in the Graflex International Photo Contest with one of his steam engine photos. That image required laying almost 1/3 mile of wire in order to fire 32 flash bulbs.

He frequently shot with two cameras, one set in portrait mode and the other in landscape. Although he sometimes requested help of the dispatcher, for the most part he had to set up his cameras and lights and wait for that split second moment to trip the shutter. One chance, one shot, tear down and move on. In all, he took almost 3000 photos over the course of 3 years of work.

As someone else noted, this was a personal project. He didn't receive a dime for any of this work for almost 25 years after he took the last photo.

Thanks for the heads up - always loved his work and will have to get this new book.
Cheers, Andy

No light stands in this one but the sentiment is the same


O. Winston Link is one of my all time favorites. When you see the above print in person it's clear the drive-in screen with the airplane is cut from another print. Rather crudely done by today's standards actually. Notice the bright white line of the paper cut at the bottom of the screen. It's not very noticeable in books and as small jpegs, but in person it leaps out.

"Usually, permission from a big player goes a long way towards securing permission from the smaller players (the theater owner, for example, in this case)."

Hi Mike, like the dumb a** I am I didn't read the full write up, and you are quite correct, he did it all with prior permission. I can only hope that institutions are as willing these days to be so helpful. I am sure some are.

I also assumed it was not "fixed" until I heard from JC about the fighter jet. Still it is not a collage exactly, even though it quite easily could have been - if Photoshop had existed at the time :)

It's still a massive fudge sundae's worth (pun intended) of guilty pleasure for me, as I find the 50s-60s transition period completely fascinating.

I think we are going through a similar transition now, possibly more profound. It probably won't become apparent for a few decades but it's happening all the same.

In August of 1998 I visited Charleston, South Carolina for a few days. Never go there in August. Every day it was over 100*F and the humidity in that low bay area was simply, totally, unlike anything I know of oppressive. I was walking around town with a 4x5 outfit, bag and tripod. That was as hot and uncomfortable as I ever remember being.

I happened across the Gibbes Museum of Art http://www.gibbesmuseum.org/ and noticed there was an exhibit of O. Winston Link's photographs. I thought what a great reason to go inside someplace cool. I spent nearly two hours in there (it was mercifully bone-chillingly cold) and I saw every one of the dozens of exquisitely printed photographs with detailed descriptions of how they were made. In my mind's eye the images were huge but they were likely only 16x20's.

To this day, I think it is the best exhibit of photographs I have ever seen and I went back the next day when it was 106* again...

As a foamer, I own both books and have been to the museum. I even have a refrigerator magnet of one of his photos, as I don't have enough to buy a print...

Other than seeing an Ansel Adams print at LACMA, this was the best photo exhibit I have yet seen.

Apart from Paul Yules' two OWL documentaries, ('Trains that Pass in the Night' and 'The Photographer, his Wife, her Lover'), UK TV showed a third one of him setting up a final railroad shot with Sylvania's last stock of flashbulbs - this has an ending as dramatic as the latter, at least photographically. (No spoilers). Can anyone recall it and if it is commercially available?

Clive: The programme you describe is "Trains that Pass in the Night".

AFAIK there are only two documentaries on OWL.

You can get "Trains that Pass in the Night" on DVD from


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