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Ogle Winston Link (aka O. Winston Link)

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Ogle Winston Link
(Brooklyn, New York, 1914 - 2001)

Ogle Winston Link(1) was born on December 16, 1914 in Brooklyn, New York to Earnest Albert Link and Ann Winston Jones Link.(2) He grew up in Brooklyn near Prospect Park. His father regularly took him sightseeing around New York City and it was on these trips that Link learned how to use a camera. By the time he reached high school, Link had become so interested in photography that he built his own enlarger. From the beginning he was interested in trains and during high school he began to make excursions with friends to various rail yards to watch and photograph the engines.

Link attended high school at the Manual Training High School in Brooklyn where he took preparatory coursework in engineering in addition to the usual academic subjects. In 1933, he received a scholarship to the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn where he began to study civil engineering. Link graduated in 1937 with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. Because of the Depression, engineering jobs were scarce so Link became the photographer for a public relations firm in New York City called Carl Byoir and Associates. Link worked at Byoir and Associates until 1942 when he joined the Division of War Research's Office of Scientific Research and Development at Columbia University as a project engineer and photographer. That same year he married Marteal Oglesby, a young model and actress he had met on one of his trips to Louisiana, and in 1945, the Link's only child, Winston Conway Link was born. The marriage ended in divorce in 1948.

During his years at Columbia University, Link primarily worked on developing a device to detect submerged submarines from the air. However, the building where he worked was located next to a railroad yard and he began photographing trains in his spare time. Because he was taking these photographs during the daytime, they often contained a lot of unwanted detail and activity. Link began thinking about how he might photograph the trains at night, though he did not yet attempt any night-time photographs.

After the war ended, Link decided to open his own commercial studio. He started working out of his home, but after he and his wife divorced in 1948, he moved back to his parents' house in Brooklyn. In 1949, he rented a studio in mid-town Manhattan. Like his job at Byoir and Associates, Link did mostly advertising work. His clients included Texaco, Inc., Alcoa, Ethyl Corporation, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the American Petroleum Institute, Freeport Sulphur Company and the New York Times. Though he was fairly successful, Link kept the business small, never expanding the staff beyond himself and one or two part-time assistants.

In January 1955, while on a business trip to Virginia, Link decided to drive to nearby Waynesboro to visit the Norfolk and Western railroad line, one of the last to still use steam engines. Link became fascinated with the steam trains and returned the next day to photograph them. Pleased with the results, Link got permission from the head of the Norfolk and Western to photograph all along the line before it converted to diesel-powered engines. Link pursued the project in his spare time over the next five years, creating over 2,250 black and white negatives and 200 color negatives and transparencies. Most of the photographs were taken at night, except for the photographs of the Abingdon, Virginia branch of the line. Though the Norfolk and Western line ran from Norfolk, Virginia to the Atlantic Coast, and from Hagerstown, Virginia south to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Link concentrated on the more mountainous areas where traffic was densest and buildings and towns were clustered along the tracks. Link also recorded the sounds of the engines and produced records of train sounds.

It was not until the mid 1970s that Link began to consider exhibiting his railroad photographs, though his work had been published in a number of railroad-related magazines, including the Norfolk and Western's company newsletter.(3) Finally, in 1983 they were exhibited at two locations: The Photographers' Gallery in London and the Akron Art Museum.(4) Also, the journalist, Allan Ripp, of "American Photographer" magazine, began publicizing Link's work and, as a result, interest in Link's photographs began to grow. Link closed his commercial photography business in 1983 and began to pursue a busy exhibition schedule including locations as diverse as Atlanta, Georgia; Lynchburg, Virginia; New York City; Tokyo; London; and Paris.

For his railroad photographs, Link used a 4 x 5 Graphic View Camera and predominantly black and white film, though he also took some color photographs.(5) To choose his subjects, Link would ride the train scouting for good locations and then return by car with his equipment. He maintained detailed notebooks of possible locations, and he kept extensive notes about the setup for each photograph. The logistical problems of photographing moving objects at night required extensive preplanning, organization, and that Link previsualize the photograph without its central element, the train. During the day Link would mark the point where he wanted the train to be when he triggered the cameras; after dark, he would place an electric lantern on the spot to mark it and serve as a focusing target. He would then set up his cameras, often with different lenses, angles, and exposures, to get a variety of views. He relied on various compositional devices to obtain the depth of field he preferred.(6)

Lighting the photographs was the most complicated aspect. It could take Link days or even weeks to prepare for a single image. He often had to string wire for his flashbulbs over distances as long as a mile and he had to use specially designed bulbs and reflectors. Flashes could contain a cluster of as many as eighteen bulbs. All of the wires were hooked to a single, custom-built portable power supply that was an early form of battery capacitor. Cameras and flashbulbs could then be triggered with a single button. Link had to wait until he had developed the film to see if a shot had been successful.

To critics, Link's railroad photographs have suggested the art of Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper in addition to possessing surrealist elements.(7) Link's photographs generally are characterized by the use of staged set-ups, suggesting studio photographs taken outdoors. His settings usually contain elements of the frameworks in which the trains functioned: the towns, communities, and people they served; the people who cared for and operated them; and the stations, roundhouses and other railroad buildings with which they were associated. Link generally tried to include at least one human figure in most of his photographs, though they may be minor elements.

Occasionally, Link departed from these conventions to show a train isolated in nature, and the machines surprisingly often seem as organic as their surroundings—at harmony, rather than contrasting with, their setting; the stripped down presentation and high contrast used in these photographs lends the trains a simple elemental power equivalent to that of nature. Other common elements in Link's photographs are a great depth of field, and the use of strong diagonals or other sharp angles. Often their presentation is dramatic because of the bright lighting used to photograph at night. In both day-time and night-time scenes, Link's photographs tend to be high contrast with particularly dark, rich blacks and a glossy finish. Though the photographs documented a vanishing world in which Link was deeply interested, overall his pictures more often seem celebratory or commemorative rather than melancholy. However, nostalgia is an inescapable component.

Link's work can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center for Photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among others.

(1) Link rarely used his first name, usually abbreviating it to an initial or omitting it altogether.
(2)Biographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Night Trick by O. Winston Link: Photographs of the Norfolk and Western Railway, 1955-60, The Photographers' Gallery, London, 1983; O. Winston Link, Ghost Trains: Railroad Photographs of the 1950s, The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, October 28-December 31, 1983; Tim Hensley and O. Winston Link, Steam, Steel and Stars: America's Last Steam Railroad, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1987; Anthony Korner, "The Night Owl", Artforum Vol. XXVII no. 9, May 1989, pp. 141-146; O. Winston Link and Thomas H. Garver, The Last Steam Railroad in America, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1995.
(3)Railroad-related publications which have regularly published Link photographs are Railfan and Railroad, Railway Progress, and Trains: The Magazine of Railroading.
(4)For the exhibition catalogs to these shows see Ghost Trains: Railroad Photographs of the 1950s, The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, October 28-December 31, 1983 and Night Trick by O. Winston Link: Photographs of the Norfolk and Western Railway, 1955-60, The Photographers' Gallery, London, 1983.
(5)Link normally uses black and white Super Panchro Press Type B film.
(6)"What I like to do is get a big object in the foreground—smack you right in the face—and have it sharp. But I want everything else in the background sharp too." (Link and Garver, 1995, p. 37).
(7)"Link's railroad photographs have been compared with the paintings of Norman Rockwell (without the sentimentality) and Edward Hopper (with more animation)...The staged placement of the characters, who often appear oblivious to a locomotive roaring past behind or beside them, recalls the surreal quality of René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Delvaux (reportedly, none of whose work Link has ever seen)." (Korner, 1989, p. 141). See also Ghost Trains, 1983, p. 7.

M. Bullock 9/17/97

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