Goodbye to the Iron Buffalo

The strange case of railroad photographer O. Winston Link

by Gordon Campbell
(Click train images to expand.)

There is a romantic notion that art springs out more or less fully formed, in a burst of inspiration, from the artist. More often, every single thing that has happened in the artist’s life has helped prepare them for this great creative moment. The strange and beautiful train photographs of O.Winston Link definitely fall into that category.

If Link hadn’t been trained as an engineer, if he hadn’t spent decades using large format cameras during his career in industrial photography, if he hadn’t had a lifetime interest in trains…none of this stuff would exist. Link simply wouldn’t have had the patience or the skill to solve all the technical problems of photographing these great machines – and alongside them, the vanishing cultural landscape of rural life in America. For Link, all of it was to end in a small measure of fame, and a freight car full of personal grief and humiliation, as I’ll explain later.

The lighting was always the most astonishing thing about his work. Somehow, Link managed to light the trains and their surroundings as if they were on a movie set, and the longer one looks at his images the stranger they become. Think about it. Imagine how hard it would have been to throw dramatic lighting onto a train moving at top speed across an open landscape while keeping the light, the depth of field and all the other components in focus, and well balanced in the frame. Besides everything else, Link’s photographs were quite astonishing physical feats.

Ogle Winston Link was not a Southerner. He was born in 1914 in New York City – and in 1955, when he first began to document the last days of steam locomotion in America, the conversion to diesel was already nearly complete. In fact, the Norfolk and Western company in Virginia was the last remaining major employer of steam locomotives, using them mainly to haul coal through the steep mountain gradients of Appalachia. Even then, N&W had begun to introduce diesels onto one of their four routes. In other words, Link was working against the clock to get this record in place, before the last of the great steam engines were sent to the scrapyard.

During his years as an industrial photographer, Link had learned to use flash lighting to make even the drabbest buildings look as interesting as possible. During the war, he also learned how to photograph planes in motion. When applied to the trains, the result was a peculiar form of heightened realism, Essentially, what Link was trying to do on the railway track was the same thing that those Hollywood movie directors who were working in the film noir genre were doing on their studio back-lots. Just like them, Link was using highly artificial, expressionist lighting to convey hyper-realistic images of the machines, and the landscapes through which they raced. The screenwriter and director Paul Schrader once described film noir in these terms : “The best film noir technicians simply made the world a sound stage, directing unnatural and expressionistic lighting onto realistic settings.” So did Link.

There is no evidence Link ever saw those movies, or felt inspired by any other photographic movement. So, how did he do it? First, he traveled the entire length of all the N & W routes in both directions – sitting consecutively on opposite sides of the train, scouting for locations. Having chosen his settings and plotted the likely speed of the trains at those points on the route, Link would then plan his angles, and set up his lighting arrays. The wide format camera that he wanted to use brought its own set of challenges. Since Link also wanted all the background details to be in focus, he had to somehow compensate for the shallow depth of field that was inevitable with the format he was using.

The lighting though, was the real headache. Link had to throw the light onto the train (and onto its smoke column in particular) at exactly the right angle – and he had to fire his batteries of flashlights at exactly the right number of milliseconds before he opened the shutter, and then keep the shutter open just long enough to avoid the twin perils of over and under exposure. Since the flashbulbs could be used only once, it was an all or nothing moment, every time. Often, the focusing needs of shooting a fast moving, faraway object in the dark, came into conflict with the exposure demands of letting in too much, or too little light. The fact that Link was able to consistently juggle all these factors and synchronise the banks of spotlights he had strung beside, or angled across the tracks – while still composing images of great beauty – still seems extraordinary.

Not all the Link photographs were shot at night. He did shoot in daylight and even at times, in colour. Night shooting in black and white though, remained his preference.“ I can’t move the sun, “ Link once joked. “ and its always in the wrong place. And I can’t even move the tracks, so I had to make my own environment through lighting.” Which he did, to remarkable effect. In his Link monograph The Last Steam Railroad in America, Thomas Garver tellingly juxtaposes (pages 20-21) one of Link’s most magical shots of the Hawksbill Creek swimming hole, with the same scene shot in daylight. By day, there is absolutely no inkling of what Link managed to conjure up from the scene at night.

Besides shooting the colossal engines on the track and in the workshops, he also photographed the railway workers, and the communities that the trains were passing through. Many of the coal hauling trains were winding their way through narrow valleys, where the towns were wedged right up alongside the tracks, so the social context was right there, in frame. Some of these communities have now entirely vanished, along with the trains that served them.

Surprisingly though, Link’s photographs are not at all elegiac. Yes, the passing of an era was being documented and due respect was being shown to the machines and people who depended on them – but it was done with hardly any overt sentimentality. Again, the “over-riding theme” that Paul Schrader felt was distinctive of film noir applied to Link’s photographs as well : “They record the darkness creeping into American life….[they demonstrate] a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future. Thus, film noir techniques emphasise loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities and insecurity, but then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism and style.” All of which could be said of Link’s work as well. His artificial lighting managed to freeze in time a vanishing social world in which the steam engine looked more like an iron buffalo, than an iron horse. Yet this death-of-an-era content is rendered almost dreamlike, by the overwhelming sense of style.

It took a while for these photographs to get the attention they deserved. They were photographs of trains, after all. Moreover, his expressionistic lighting put Link’s work right out of sync with the grittier, more casual naturalism that dominated a lot of art and fashion photography between the 1960s and the 1980s. It took until 1983 for instance, for Link’s work to be shown in an art gallery for the first time – the same year that he married Conchita Mendoza, who became his business agent and later, his nemesis. Clearly, Link had done this work for little in the way of financial return at the time, and with little hope it would ever be widely recognized by anyone else.

So, why on earth did he bother – and how did the personal humiliation that I referred to earlier come about? In The Last Steam Railroad In America, Thomas Garver gives a few early clues. Link’s first marriage had ended in divorce in 1948, and after his former wife and only child moved to Louisiana, Link shifted back into his parents’ house in Brooklyn, and threw himself into his successful commercial photography business. When the N & W railway project came along, it filled an artistic and an emotional need for him. For one thing, the railroad company gave him carte blanche to do the project as he saw fit, and in whatever time it took to do it right. This particular ‘client” would put no commercial pressure on him, whatsoever.

Moreover, there were now no family demands to distract him from the time and effort required. “He lived simply,” Thomas Garver says in his monograph, “and the documentation of the railroad controlled both his professional and personal life at the time…The people he met while working along the rails became his surrogate family. They were deeply important to him, and he would look forward eagerly to making each trip to the south, so that he could visit them.”

One of those encounters along the track came in the form of Conchita Mendoza – who was 48 when they met and married. He was 73. The story of this marriage has been related in a lurid 2006 documentary called The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover: The Story of Railroad Photography Great O. Winston Link. Allegedly, Mrs Link imprisoned her by now elderly husband in a basement darkroom, and put him to work for nearly two years churning out prints that she then sold and pocketed the money, while entertaining lovers at home – all of this amid claims and counter claims in court, of physical and mental abuse on both sides.

Ultimately, Mendoza Link was sentenced to five years in jail for committing grand larceny in relation to the un-authorised sale (to the tune of one million dollars) of Link’s railroad prints. When finally released, she was then caught in a sting operation trying to sell 31 more of Link’s missing prints on eBay. Ironically, her early efforts to publicise Link’s work had been a key factor in it gaining the level of public exposure, artistic acclaim and profitability that it now enjoys, Link died in 2001, at the age of 86. In the documentary, his estranged brother had described him as being someone who “didn’t like black people, Jews, Italians, Spaniards, or anybody not Anglo-Saxon.” That being another aspect of those railroad communities he photographed, and of America, past and present.
Something, an urge to accomplish more in life had originally inspired Link to conceive and carry out the railroad project. True, it also set him on a collision course with Conchita Mendoza Link. Yet as Garver says, without the railway project, Link would have lived and died as a successful but anonymous commercial tradesman. By taking the plunge, Link managed to give those great steam engines – and himself – a measure of immortality.


FOOTNOTE: This essay is intended as a mere introduction to the works of O.Winston Link. Readers are encouraged to purchase:

“The Last Steam Railroad in America”
Text by Thomas H. Garver
Published by Harry N, Abrams Inc. 1995
Purchase on Amazon.comSearch via