By the 1950s, diesel locomotives had replaced their steam counterparts on most railroads in America. One notable exception was the Norfolk & Western Railway, which crisscrossed the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. It was there that a self-taught photographer would snap some of the most evocative and dramatic photos of steam railroading in its final days.
O. Winston Link was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. Link began dabbling with amateur photography as a teenager. Although he completed a degree in civil engineering, he soon found himself working as a commercial photographer, where he further developed his skills through on-the-job training.
In 1955, while on assignment in Virginia, Link became captivated by the Norfolk & Western Railway’s steam locomotives. Recognizing that the steam locomotive’s days were numbered, Link decided to embark on a project to capture the trains on film. Over the next five years on this entirely self-funded project, he would capture over 2,000 photographs, some of which are now considered among the most famous railroad photographs ever taken.
Working almost exclusively at night, Link used complex arrangements of flashbulbs to craft dramatically-lit images. The railroad supported Link’s project, even allowing him to stop trains while he set up his lighting equipment and arranged the perfect shot. It would be several years before Link’s photographs were recognized for their outstanding composition and technical achievements. But once they were, Link became recognized as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.
Link’s later life was marred by drama. His second wife, Conchita Mendoza Link, who also acted as her husband’s agent, allegedly fabricated a story that Link suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease in an attempt to steal payments for his work. Conchita Link was also accused of stealing many of Link’s negatives and prints and pocketing the money from their sale. She was criminally charged, found guilty, and sentenced to prison in 1996.
O. Winston Link died in 2001 at the age of 86. The O. Winston Link museum was opened in 2004 in Roanoke, Virginia, at the former Norfolk & Western Railway passenger station, and displays many of his most famous works.
Know Before You Go
The museum features free parking and an hourly film about Link's life and legacy.