Link was born on December 16, 1914, to Ernest Albert Link Sr. and Anne Winston Jones Link in Brooklyn, New York. Anne Link was from Virginia and Albert Link was from West Virginia, but the couple had moved to New York to build a better life. Albert Link had many passions and introduced his son to photography. He also had a sense of humor and was an expert storyteller, qualities his son would inherit.
Link was a good student, especially when it came to math, and a fantastic hockey player. He worked at a drugstore in his teenage years, developing photographs. After high school, Link went to business school for a year to study accounting before attending the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he studied civil engineering and served as the photo editor for the institute’s newspaper. Link graduated in 1937 but had trouble finding work as an engineer in the midst of the. As luck would have it, he caught the attention of Carl Byoir and Associates, a pioneering public relations firm that wrote advertising stories for their clients and needed photographs to accompany them.
Carl Byoir and Associates sent Link all over the country to shoot publicity photos. One of Link’s best-known commercial photos was an advertisement for Tuf-Flex glass, which was advertised as withstanding “fire and ice.” Link took a photograph of a large pane of glass across two blocks of ice, with a raging fire underneath the glass and three large blocks of ice on top, with a model standing on the pyramid to demonstrate the strength and durability of the glass.
In 1942, Winston married Vanda Marteal Oglesby, an actress and model. They had a son, Winston Conway Link, who was born in 1945. Link left Byoir and Associates in 1942 to take a job at Airborne Instruments Laboratory, a defense research laboratory on Long Island, as World War II (1939–1945) raged. There he helped develop photographs from magnetic airborne detectors, which were new devices that helped locate enemy submarines from planes that flew close to the surface of the water. This work tapped into Link’s engineering knowledge as these photographs could be difficult to capture. It was during this time that Link’s fascination with trains and night photography began. The Long Island Railroad ran past the laboratory, and Link began to photograph the trains that traveled by at night.
After the war, Link decided to become a freelance photographer. He built his business using the connections he made at Carl Byoir and Associates. Link had a knack for handling photographs that required special lighting or a technically difficult set-up. Many of his clients specialized in industrial equipment and heavy machinery. It was during this stressful time of trying to establish himself as a freelance photographer, which took many long hours, that Link and Vanda Link divorced.
The Norfolk and Western Project
Link came to Staunton in 1955 to photograph Westinghouse air conditioners being made there. It was during this trip that Link began his N&W project. Norfolk and Western was the last large American railroad to run trains with steam locomotives. Link visited a station in Waynesboro and took several photographs of steam locomotives at night. He sent the images to N&W headquarters and asked for permission to photograph trains on N&W property. R. H. Smith, the president of N&W, had a soft spot for steam locomotives and gave Link permission.
For the next five years, Link made frequent trips to Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina to capture dramatic nighttime black-and-white images of N&W steam locomotives. He hauled cameras, tripods, lighting wire, flashbulbs, and reflectors behind his 1952 Buick (which can be seen in at least one of his photographs). Link’s technical background was essential to the creation of his images. He would scout locations for his photographs for days, making sketches and noting details about the scenery and taking measurements for where and how to set up his cameras and flashbulbs to capture the image he had in mind. Link’s commercial photography experience also came into play; he often staged his photos, using people to create a scene that he had envisioned. Some of Link’s photographs required almost a mile of wire and dozens of one-time use flashbulbs to capture a single image. The resulting large-scale photographs were a melancholic testament to the end of the steam era. Over the course of twenty-one trips, Link took approximately 2,600 photographs. Link also made audio and video recordings. The audio recordings were later turned into vinyl records and were popular long before Link’s photographs.
O. Winston Link’s Railroad Photography
While Link may have started the project because of his love for trains and his desire to create unique nighttime photographs, he also ended up documenting a disappearing way of life along the rail line. Link befriended residents from the small towns and homes that dotted the landscape around the Norfolk and Western line, many of whom worked on or for the railroad, and he captured them and their fading rural communities alongside the last of the steam engines.
Railroad Workers and Southern Way of Life
Diesel engines fully replaced steam locomotives on the N&W line in May 1960. Link returned to New York, where he documented the building of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and other major construction projects. Link purchased a Canadian Pacific engine and passenger car to restore as another railroad project to occupy his time. Norfolk and Western gifted him an out-of-commission caboose to complete the set. Link was able to restore the passenger car himself, but he needed a professional machine shop and locomotive restorer to handle the engine restoration.
Link’s photographs remained obscure for years. In 1976, he sold five photographs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His N&W photographs gained popularity in the early 1980s as the result of exhibitions in London and Akron, Ohio. Demand for the dramatic images soared, and they were sold to museums, galleries, and collectors, sometimes for thousands of dollars.
Startling, Nostalgic Images
After the difficult divorce, Link made frequent trips to Roanoke, the N&W headquarters and site of the shops that built many of his beloved locomotives, where he had many friends. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were discussions about creating a museum dedicated to Link’s work. The Historical Society of Western Virginia along with a group of Roanoke residents and friends of Link helped to raise funds for the establishment of a permanent museum. The former Roanoke passenger station near downtown Roanoke, which had sat vacant for years, was selected as the home for the museum as part of the Western Virginia Foundation for the Arts and Science’s effort to revitalize the Roanoke area. Unfortunately, Link would not see the museum dedicated to his work come to fruition. He died of a heart attack on January 30, 2001, at the age of 86 and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
In early 2004, the O. Winston Link Museum opened to the public. It continues to be one of the most popular destinations in Roanoke and has attracted visitors from all over the world to see Link’s dramatic documentation of a bygone era.