As steam engines were about to fade from railroading in the late 1950s, photographer O. Winston Link sought to capture the nostalgia, mystery and symbolism they evoked of a rapidly changing post-war America.
This spring, Reynolda House Museum of American Art
hosts an exhibition of photographs drawn from the collection of O. Winston Link's former assistant Thomas Garver and circulated by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. "Trains that Passed in the Night: The Photographs of O. Winston Link," will be on view through June 19 in the main gallery of the Babcock Wing. The exhibition includes 50 black-and-white gelatin silver photographs, all printed during Link's lifetime and signed by the artist. The gallery also features images of Link staging his highly technical photographs, and a multimedia area where visitors can listen to recordings of steam engines and watch film of the Norfolk & Western Railway.
In 1955, O. Winston Link (1914-2001), a commercial photographer in New York City, traveled south on assignment and spent an evening watching the steam locomotives of the Norfolk & Western Railway. The next night he returned to make the first photographs of what would become a five-year, self-financed project to document these disappearing machines. From 1955 to 1960, Link made more than 20 trips to Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina to photograph the N&W line. Link's evocative nocturnal images are at once highly staged technical feats, nostalgic representations of a disappearing way of life, and beautifully strange works of art produced during the era of film noir. They depict the end of the era of steam railroading in the United States and the rural landscapes that these last trains passed through.
Winston-Salem, once an important junction of the N&W and Southern Railways Lines, is close to the areas depicted in Link's photographs. Visitors from Northwest North Carolina and Southwest Virginia may recognize many of the depots and communities pictured in the exhibition.
These photographs did not receive their first museum exhibition until 1983, almost 30 years after the first image was taken. Since then, Link's achievements have received international recognition and his photographs can be found in the nation's premier museum collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2004, the O. Winston Link Museum opened in Roanoke, Virginia.
"Trains That Passed in the Night: The Photographs of O. Winston Link" is organized by Thomas H. Garver and produced in collaboration with the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (www.railphoto-art.org). Reynolda House received support for this exhibition from contributing sponsors Patty and Malcolm Brown, and education sponsors North Carolina Railroad Company and Norfolk Southern Corporation.