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Lights, Camera, Trains

O. Winston Link has been called one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. He studied civil engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn but engineering jobs were scarce when he graduated in 1937 so he became a photographer. During World War II he found work at a military research lab next to the Long Island Railroad and started photographing trains during his spare time. Nearly 20 years later, he began work on what was to become his most enduring legacy: chronicling the last days of the steam engine. With cooperation from the Norfolk & Western Railway, which in 1955 was the last mainline railroad to operate exclusively with steam power, he took nearly 2,500 shots of the trains as they traveled through Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. He preferred shooting at night and, thanks to his engineering training, was able to capture speeding locomotives in a way never accomplished before. Large-scale nighttime shooting worked previously only if nothing in the photo was moving. Link constructed large platforms to shoot from and devised special flash reflectors for lighting huge areas; he used a power supply that could fire 60 flashbulbs at once, along with the shutters of three cameras all perfectly synchronized. Sometimes, he spent days getting ready for a single shot but it was well worth it. With the equipment he built, Link could photographically stop the motion of a train moving at 60 miles an hour.

An exhibit of 300 of those pictures opened recently at the old Norfolk & Western passenger station in Roanoke, Va.

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