Visual Arts - Trainspotting

O. Winston Link show exposes America on both sides of the tracks

If ever an artist encapsulated the most endearing, plainly heroic and quaint aspects of America, it was O. Winston Link. Link often suggests a Norman Rockwell of photography, but with an absence of that artist’s treacle and easy sentimentality.

Somewhere between the panache and homespun quirk of David Lynch and Frank Capra, Link made pictures of America that now have a surreal, hologram quality enhanced by Link’s use of synchronized flash to invest his scenes with an uncanny glow. They are the images Link wanted of America, and ones that also stroke our collective Mayberry fantasies, of small-town life and friendly people and industries that never died.

But industries, even seemingly unassailable ones, do die, and beginning in 1955, Link documented the steam railroad’s twilight in his gorgeous images of the Norfolk and Western railroad line.

Link not only captured the train as a constant fixture of the American small towns on the Norfolk-Western line, he captured the places and people who lived with the routine of the locomotive’s schedule, underscoring his philosophy that the steam engine was a vital thread in the American tapestry. Link’s iconic black-and-white images of Virginia train depots, heroic locomotives and tykes in scotch plaid jackets waving “hello” to passing conductors are drenched in nostalgia, a nostalgia that guided Link while he made the images, and reaches through the decades to affect a new generation of retro-enthusiasts.

A show of 26 images that should be equally enthralling to Link fetishists and Johnny-Come-Lately’s alike, the survey of Link’s work offered up at Fay Gold Gallery includes some of his most famous images as well as lesser-known work. The show includes several portraits of Link as well as some exquisite, rarer color images the photographer made in 1968 of the Queen Elizabeth 2 docked in New York’s harbor. The exhibition honors the artist who died this year at the age of 86 and coincides with the inauguration of the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Va.

The work demonstrates Link’s prankish side and his complete intoxication with the mythos of the train, which emerges in “Washing J Class 605” from a movie glamour haze of water like a noir gumshoe parting through a back alley fog. In town for the opening, Link’s only son Winston Conway Link testified to his father’s unrelenting dry wit and high spirits. That assertion of Link’s penchant for joshing inspires a reading of certain images in a new light, like 1957’s “The Popes at Max Meadows” of an embracing couple watching a passing train’s plume of steam part the black night like a lover’s sigh. While Hallmark Card lovers in the classical romantic vernacular survey sunsets, Link’s lovers get dewy over the beauty of a steam engine.

In Link’s view, America hugged the tracks, and the train was as vital and ever present as the water mains and electrical power lines that bisect the landscape. In the exquisitely funny “H Fringer’s Living Room on Track” that proximity to the tracks appears to have driven one woman to a distracted loopiness. As her tow-headed grandson waves from the living room’s picture window at a train passing mere yards from the chintz curtains, Mrs. Fringer — looking a heartbeat away from the straightjacket — grips the upholstered furniture and wears an expression of squelched trauma.

The human beings in Link’s work are echoes of his trains, representations of an America of nonpareil sturdiness and spunk. In “Swimming Pool” the posture of the reclining teen queens perched around the concrete pond are as erect and assured as that of the train that passes behind them — a steel symphony to their wienie roast days. Little boys are a recurring motif in the work, too — another suggestive stand-in for the grown man with a child’s romance for the mechanical beasts.

In a 2000 portrait included in the show of Link by Michael O’Neill, the photographer not only echoes the train, he is the thing. Sitting on the prow of a great steel beast, Link’s tan shirt and pants are bathed in the same luminous gold light. Link has been bronzed by O’Neill, and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate rendition of a man who lived his life riding high on the rails.

O. Winston Link runs through Jan. 2 at Fay Gold Gallery, 764 Miami Circle, Tues.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. . 404-233-3843.