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, 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gives Link’s images, shot primarily at night with intricate flashbulb setups, a lasting importance as artistic and historical documents.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.
Link passed away in 2001, but has since been honored with a museum in Roanoke, Virginia. A collection of his photographs will be exhibited at Robert Mann Gallery in February and March.