In celebration of its tenth anniversary, “Link at 10,” the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia created an exhibition showcasing the work of its namesake. Widely known for pioneering night photography and his images of railroads, Link: Commercial displays a selection of lesser-known advertising commissions that launched Link's photography career and sustained his fine art pursuit of railway photography.
O. Winston Link began his photography career at Carl Byoir, a public relations firm, in 1937. In 1946, Link opened his own studio in New York City and by 1960 had established a successful commercial career. He spent the next 23 years working in advertising with clients including some of the world's largest industrial companies.
One of Link’s passions was railroading; a passion that intersected his profession when an industrial photography assignment brought him to Staunton, Virginia in 1955. Link photographed the Norfolk and Western Railway line, the surrounding landscape, and the people in the surrounding towns. A rail line whose length equaled the distance from Virginia to Utah, Link focused his work in Virginia. With the shift in railroading from steam to diesel in 1960, Link’s work not only documented the rural Southern culture surrounding locomotives, but also the end of the steam engine era.
O. Winston Link’s work as a commercial photographer—while impressive—was simply a way for him to pay the bills. However, the Link Museum’s exhibit pushes the viewer to consider Link’s work as photographs made by an artist, though he himself denied the title of artist, stating, “I know what I want and I know how it’s going to get done and I know what it’s going to look like when I’m finished.”
The O. Winston Link Museum, housed in the former passenger station for the Norfolk and Western railway in Roanoke, is primarily a photography museum. Its mission is to preserve Link’s photographs, the last years of steam power, and the life it supported. In a museum that already breaks from convention as a testament to one man’s life’s work, Link: Commercial deviates from a more expected exhibit of his night and train photographs. While Link was known for his black and white photography, six of the twenty-four photographs in the exhibit are in color, all of which were either commercial or industrial photographs. Link was a pioneer of night photography, drawing from the flash lighting techniques of his advertising work. Yet, Link: Commercial displays images with interior and natural lighting. The nature of his commercial and industrial work also breaks from the traditional museum setting; these images on display are an art form designed to sell something in a venue where nothing is for sale. These deviations shed new light on Link as a commercial photographer and artist, not only a photographer of trains.
When in the museum setting, the photographs become elevated to fine art. The images contain the compositional and stylistic markers of commercial photography, but they also inspire concepts or ideas, much like the railroading photographs throughout the museum. For example, looking at a picture of Jergens Extra Dry Skin Formula bottles on a conveyer belt, the viewer sees not only a picture of a product, but a glimpse into mass production and consumer culture. A picture of a clean-cut man in a green shirt amidst a tangle of colorful wires is a reflection of the beginning of the hi-tech era.
All twenty-four photographs create a unique exhibit, which displays the more socio-cultural side to advertisement art. Though not a typical collection of O. Winston Link’s work, these images preserve his artistic style of finding the honest and original history in the posed and common setting.
Link: Commercial is currently on view at O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia
Pam Gilmer is a contributing writer for Don't Take Pictures and a student at Southern Virginia University.