In January 1955, when photographer O. Winston Link hurried through a commercial assignment so that he could go see Norfolk and Western Train No. 2 on its run from Roanoke to New York, two durable pieces of American technology were nearing the end of the line. Steam engines had been replaced by diesels on every main railroad line but the N&W. And the cumbersome large-format camera was being supplanted by the compact 35mm-type and the "candid" photographs that it made possible. A train buff since childhood, Link spent the next five years making 2,400 photographs each meticulously planned and composed on his big cameras to document the final days of steam.
This monumental effort by Link can be seen in The Last Steam Railroad in America, with text by Thomas Garver, published this month by Harry N. Abrams.
Link, who quickly won the support of N&W president R. H. Smith, recalls: "I never knew what word he passed down the line, but it seemed to me that he gave me 2,300 miles of track, 450 steam locomotives and all the employees of the N&W to help me get the job done."
His most spectacular photographs technical masterpieces were made at night. "I can't move the sun and it's always in the wrong place and I can't even move the tracks, so I had to create my own environment through lighting." After studying the site, Link would spend hours in the darkness strategically placing flashbulbs to illuminate every relevant detail. With such elaborate setups, he usually could make only one shot an image of power frozen in time.
Today, at 80, Link has outlived the age of steam, but in Thomas Garver's words, "He photographed America as he wished it to forever remain."
By Marlane A. Liddell