Artforum / February 2008
O. Winston Link
O. Winston Link’s photograph Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, WV, 1956, captures an extraordinary confl uence of elements that presents a succinct—not to mention spectacular—summation of the changing state of life in the industrialized world at midcentury. In a shot that feels almost Futurist in its fetishization of technology (the bigger, faster, and louder the better), Link crams a plane, a train, and several automobiles into one tightly composed black-and-white shot: In the foreground, a young couple sit in the front seat of their convertible watching a plane fl y overhead on a drive-in movie screen, while in the (alarmingly proximate) background, the titular locomotive races by.
But as in many of Link’s images, the coincidence is too good to be true. The show’s press release characterizes the mode of this and the fifteen other modestly scaled prints on display here as “photo-Rockwellian,” and it is unarguable that their maker was not afraid to tailor reality to his similarly all-American ideal. Link, a commercial photographer who died in 2001 and who is best known for his images of trains, was also a direct precursor of the likes of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall in that, far from operating in the documentary mode that his pictures initially suggest, he planned and constructed each picture with the utmost care. He used complicated, expensive lighting setups (Link and George Thom with Flash Equipment Ignited, NYC, 1956, shows the photographer and an assistant directing an array of large flashbulbs straight into the lens) and sometimes, with the assistance of train drivers willing to back up and repeat short segments of their journeys, restaged events in pursuit of the ideal result.
In some of the pictures, this manipulation results in an airless artificiality that anticipates the technically seamless but often jarringly unconvincing retouching made easy by Photoshop. Keith Children, Lithia, VA, 1956, for example, shows a train powering past a small wooden bridge on which three kids, one of them dangling a fishing rod, are standing, apparently undisturbed by the smoke-belching behemoth in their midst. The intimate juxtaposition of awe-inspiring mechanical power (albeit a fast-vanishing form of it) and idyllic (though incongruously nocturnal) pastoral vignette seems, again, too extreme, and too perfectly allegorical, to have occurred by accident. Train #2, Arcadia, VA, 1956, is similar. Here, three scenes appear connected only by Link’s sensibility; a train crosses a bridge over a narrow river while a boy seems to be herding some cows on one bank and a couple sits in a parked car on the other, all improbably oblivious to one another.
Elsewhere, the unlikely gives way to the dreamlike, as trains become vast specters, ethereal in spite of their size, looming out of the darkness in J Class 605, Shaffer’s Crossing, VA, 1955, and Luray Crossing, Luray, VA, 1956, or glimpsed traversing a silent street in Ghost Town, Stanley, VA, 1957. Link’s primary subject (arrived at via an assignment in Staunton, Virginia) was the Norfolk and Western, the last large steam railroad in America, and the fact that steam trains were doomed to extinction—to be largely superseded by the car—became obvious soon after he began the project. This realization, along with Link’s appreciation of the glamour of these great machines (which he also documented on a series of audio recordings), contributes to the series’ elegiac romance. As Morrissey puts it in the Smiths song “Nowhere Fast,” “And when a train goes by / It’s such a sad sound.”
Image: O. Winston Link, Ghost Town, Stanley, VA, 1957