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Steam, Steel & Stars

July 2024
1min read

Photographs by O. Winston Link; Abrams; 144 pages; $35.00.

Every so often during the late 1950s, the New York industrial photographer O. Winston Link would load his car with flash equipment, lock up his Thirty-fourth Street studio, and head toward one of the small Southern towns where the steam locomotives of the Norfolk and Western were charging magnificently toward their extinction. Link liked working steam—he began his career photographing trains in the New Jersey yards of the B&O—and he wanted to get it down before it vanished.

What started out as a forthright record of freight drags and passenger locomotives soon evolved into something more. Link knew he was composing an elegy, and he began to express the romance of steam through a series of increasingly intricately staged nighttime scenes. He would unspool half a mile of wire and string it between his flash units and, say, a third-floor apartment whose startled residents agreed to give over their living room to a burst of white light in a few hours’ time. When darkness and the freight arrived, explosions would ripple along the engine’s flank, the window would throw out its highlight, and the result—rich, mysterious, stirring—would, despite its overtones of fantasy, be a perfect summary of the gritty glamour of its subject.

Ninety of Link’s dramatic pictures appear in this book, and every one reminds us of what we lost when the diesels took over.

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