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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014

Trains That Passed in the Night

Grohmann photography exhibit evokes the romance of the railroads

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Thomas Garver understands O. Winston Link as a genius who “seduced” viewers with the romance of billowing smoke, thundering pistons and clattering train tracks. The analogy is apt given Link’s background as a commercial photographer, says the curator of the new exhibit, “Trains That Passed in the Night: Railroad Photographs of O. Winston Link,” which runs through April 27 at the Grohmann Museum.

Link instinctively plumbed the dark side of the American experience by taking the radical step of shooting most of his train photos at night. These 36 black-and-white prints, documenting the final days of the railroad on the Norfolk & Western Railway, evoke film noir. Link recorded the actual sound effects of this passing life and even created a film for British television. Garver describes the film as “very atmospheric and romantic.” So Link’s “seduction” brings the viewer “into the scene which includes the trains, but only as part of the total ensemble.”

Link’s “ensemble” involved locals as closely directed players in elaborate setups and lighting, and exquisite timing. His famous 1956 photo Hot Shot Eastbound blends mediums of transport and entertainment, life and death, romance and tragedy—muffled by the train powering by, as an airplane screams across a movie-screen sky. A young couple in a convertible enjoys a drive-in movie as a train hurtles past into darkness.

Link seductively downplays tragedy, complicit with the enjoyment amid such “passages.” In Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, river bathers frolic with a rather American disregard of fatefulness. Link creates a zig-zag interplay of angles from the current’s ominously black flow, the starkly backlit hill, the skeletal causeway and—in that instant—the train above, like a hell-bound or heaven-sent messenger, depending on your viewpoint.

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