Hot Shot East Bound, 1956

O. Winston Link (1914 – 2001) specialized in black-and-white photography of the last days of steam locomotive railroading in America. Link’s interest in railroads developed as a youth growing up in Brooklyn. He reflected: “The train is as close to a human being as you can get. It talks, it moves, it grunts and groans. And each engine has its own characteristics–its own sound and smell and sights.” While in western Virginia for an industrial photography job at an air conditioner factory in January 1955, he became drawn to the nearby Norfolk and Western Railway, the last major rail company to make the transition from steam to diesel.

For next five years as the N&W slowly converted to diesel, Link would make approximately 20 visits to Virginia to document this transition in over 2,400 negatives. Link worked on a 4 x 5 view camera, which was also becoming antique with the development of 35-millimeter photography and took most of his train pictures at night, so that he could engineer his scenes without the sun, using a flash and reflector system he himself devised. He spent countless hours and more than $20,000 of his own money (more than $145,000 today) on the project, stopping just a few weeks before the last Norfolk and Western steam engine made its final run on May 7, 1960.

Although it was a self-financed hobby, N&W officials (including its president Robert H. Smith) encouraged him. Photos of the N&W employees, trackside communities, and the massive Roanoke Shops, where the company had built and maintained its locomotives, followed, including famous photos: Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole (Luray, Virginia, 1956); Swimming Pool (Welch, West Virginia, 1958); Ghost Town (Stanley, Virginia), Main Line on Main Street (Northfork, West Virginia, 1958), Mr and Mrs Ben Pope watch the last steam powered passenger train (Max Meadows, Virginia, 1957), and color and black-and-white 1956 view of a horse and steam locomotive Maud bows to the Virginia Creeper (Green Cove, Virginia).

But the most famous of his photos was Hotshot Eastbound above, taken on August 2, 1956, in Iaeger, West Virginia, which depicted small-town America at the end of an era. Iaeger was a coal-mining hamlet. Link asked a stranger — a 23-year-old Army corporal on leave from Fort Campbell, Kentucky named Willie Allen — on whether he and his date would like to watch the movie from Link’s own 1952 Buick convertible. Allen and his date, Dorothy Christian, were skeptical but was enticed by a $10 incentive.

The train in the photo was N&W Freight No. 78, whose locomotive was “the most beautiful engine ever built,” according to Link. He had set up 42 flashbulbs throughout the landscape (plus one to highlight his car), and climbed a ladder to his tripod-mounted 4 x 5 to take the photo. His lights had washed out what was on the movie screen at the moment (the film was a Korean war aviation drama Battle Taxi) and in the darkroom later, Link added the image of an U.S. Air Force Sabre airplane from a negative he’d made separately of that night’s showing.

As the steam engine symbolically exited the frame, with a young couple in center stage, and his darkroom airplane on the screen, Link’s metaphor was complete. He had wanted to show a culture in speedy transition and to him, no landscape embodied this as effectively as a drive-in theater. By the late 50s, America — a nation of 40 million people — was buying cars at the rate of 8 million annually. Under President Eisenhower, more than 50% of federal transportation budget went to creation of highways (less than 5% to public transportation). Los Angeles had more cars than the whole of Asia, and GM’s profits overtook Belgium economy.

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0 thoughts on “Hot Shot East Bound, 1956

  1. There is one bicycle in the photograph. Can you find it. That is the fun part of the photo. People always thinks planes trains and autos, but he did not forget the bike!

  2. I remember see a special about this photograher some 10 or more years ago on PBS I think. I told the whole story about his life and how he created these marvelous pictures. I always liked the Hot Shot Eastbound, and found I could get a copy. It will be nice to hang on the wall.

  3. Link lit all of his night photographs with an array of custom flash bulb set-ups. The plane that was added (as noted) in the dark room because the massive flash washed out the original image on the screen. The O. Winston Link Museum has a virtual exhibit at containing all of the original negatives. Search for NW1103 to see the multiple versions of this shot!

  4. Nowadays people would say “shopped!” ’cause of the plane. The picture is a kind of hyper-real visual assault that seems odd for the period. It’s interesting to wonder how it was lit – there appears to be a huge spotlight off the left of the frame, presumably lighting up the choo-choo’s cloud of steam, or perhaps a nuclear bomb.

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