Picks and Pans Review: Steam, Steel & Stars

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

photographs by O. Winston Link

Like most boys growing up in the 1920s, O. Winston Link was fascinated by trains, particularly the grunting, steam-belching locomotives that pulled them. As a teenager he hung around the railroad yards in Jersey City, N.J., a fair trip from his Brooklyn home, to watch the big engines work. In 1937 he became a commercial photographer, but he never outgrew his boyhood passion. By 1955 diesels had all but replaced steam, and Link decided to photograph the last all-steam railroad in the country: the Norfolk and Western, in Virginia. From 1955 to 1960, when the N&W retired its last steam locomotive, Link often left his work in New York and drove to Virginia in a convertible stuffed with camera equipment. Though almost every picture he made features a churning locomotive in all its eruptive splendor, you don't have to know a 2-8-8-2 from the Little Engine That Could to appreciate them. Link, now 72, cared about more than machinery. He rode all 2,100 miles of track to find places where the railroad rubbed up against the small towns it served. Typical of Link's most enduring images is one where a freight train barrels past a vine-covered front porch where two elderly gents and a gray-haired lady sit in neighborly conversation. Link also photographed the men who ran the machines. They seem a bygone breed—plain, humble, practical, proud of their railroad, comfortable in their bandannas and striped caps and coveralls. Link seems to have identified with them. They made complicated contraptions come alive, and so did he. Link shot mostly at night—it enabled him to dramatize what interested him. There's something surreal about the night pictures—the white steam and smoke gleam, everything pristine against the black night. It could almost be the idealized view of a boy squinting, with his cheek to the track of his model train set. In symbolically taking possession of that childhood longing, Link captured a more universal longing, for a now-vanished world representing patience and precision and the harmony of man and machine. (Abrams, $35)

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