#289 – Thresholds Of Change – Link, Gifford and the end of steam

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O.Winston Link – Train No.2 arrives at the Waynesboro Station, Waynesboro, Virginia

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Colin Gifford

The increasing affordability of photography in the 50’s and 60’s meant that the end of steam traction in Europe and America was well documented. Two recent book releases by acknowledged masters of the genre present a fascinating contrast of styles and cultures.

Each a Glimpse is a re-release of Colin Giffords 1970 classic. Gifford was one of the pre-eminent British ‘progressive’ railway photographers of the 1960’s, and this book is more than a re-print, it’s more of a digital re-master of a classic album, with some photographs replaced with previously unseen ones.

Life Along The Lines is a new book of photographs by O.Winston Link, and apparently ‘replaces’ the two other books of Link’s photographs, of which more later. Link’s photographs were taken slightly earlier than Giffords, and documented the final five years of steam on the Norfolk and Western (N&W) Railway in Virginia, USA, between 1955 and 1960.

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O.Winston Link – Main Line on Main Street, North Fork, West Virginia

In the preface to ‘The Last Steam Railroad in America’, Thomas Garver contrasts Links style and methods to that of the era;

“While Robert Frank and legions of other photographers walking the streets of America photographed the country as they found it, Winston link photographed America as he wished it to forever remain. Yet his are not elegiac pictures. Link created a record of the culture and life lived along the steam railroad as though it would never die. In his photos it has not.”

Link predominantly used 4×5 large format field cameras, shooting mainly (but not exclusively) black and white. He is perhaps best known for his spectacular, often heavily staged, night time photographs along the N&W network, and these took in not just the trains in isolation, but included the workers, passengers and the people who lived along the line. Memorable photographs were taken at a drive in cinema, in a lineside living room, overlooking teenagers swimming in a moonlit river, all of which the train played a bit part role in the composition.OWL7

The photographs are masterpieces, and are widely admired beyond the railway community. But Link was more than a railway enthusiast with a camera. He was a successful freelance commercial photographer, and the project to document the last years of steam on the N&W was a huge one that fitted in around his work. He had the benefit of the official backing of the railway (although it was very much a personal project, and not a commission) which doubtless made the creation of the photographs easier, and they often involved huge, and hugely elaborate lighting setups for the night photographs. Such was the scale and complexity of these, few have come anywhere near to matching the results (although Andrew Rapazcz in the UK and Olaf Haensch in his book NachtZuge have adopted a similar, albeit smaller approach). And yet, there is far more to Link’s work than just black and white night photography. There was a lot of daylight photographs taken, including a number in colour (although he only took two in colour at night – remember he was using large format film, which is in individual sheets rather than rolls), and these are unstaged. However, they are all meticulously taken and composed as Link would drive to pre-determined spots in his car, set up his cameras, make the photographs, and then if possible, drive to another spot to get another photograph or two. His daily output on large format could be in single figures if he was out in the countryside chasing trains. And yet, as this was a personal project, relatively little of his years of work was published at the time, and it was not until 1978 that a proper exhibition of his work was held, and finally in 1987 Steam Steel and Stars was published. This was an album of his night photographs and this shot him to fame. This was followed by the aforementioned The Last Steam Railroad in America in 1995, and Life Along The Line in 2012.

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O.Winston Link – Roanoke Shops

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O.Winston Link – Father and son at Montgomery Tunnel near Christiansburg, Virginia

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O.Winston Link – Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia

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O.Winston Link – Hester Fringer’s Living Room On The Tracks, Lithia, Virginia

After flicking through a book of Link’s work, the contrast in style with Gifford is startling, but of course, the photographers were working in different countries and in different circumstances, to different agendas. And of course they weren’t the only people out there taking photographs – notable contemporaries in America include Richard Steinheimer and Jim Shaughnessy, and David Plowden, while in Europe there was Ian Krause, John Hunt, Paul Riley, Colin Walker, Les Nixon and others. The European style is more reminiscent of that described above as Robert Frank’s – photographing things as they were. What made Giffords work stand out though, was that it was different to the traditional railway photographs in the magazines of the times. Three quarter ‘wedge’ shots and the like had been the typical railway photograph for years, but here was someone who while not shunning front three quarter views entirely, made them just one part of the composition. The breadth of Giffords work is considerable – unlike Link who completed 20 trips over 5 years documenting the N & W, his three key books (Decline Of Steam, Each a Glimpse, And Gone Forever) cover virtually all of the British Rail network, from the south Coast and Cornwall, all the way up to Scotland. Once the N & W project was complete, Link took no more railway photographs.

While Link had some of his images published in contemporary magazines, he was not widely known, possibly because, as described in Life Along The Line, he was rather difficult to deal with in getting his photos for publication.

By contrast, Gifford was widely published in magazines of the day, and his first book the 1965 ‘Decline Of Steam’ was a revelation to many young steam photographers. This approach became known as the ‘New Approach’, and while there appeared to be no one single initiator of the new style, many look to Gifford as being one of the most influential. Ian Krause, one of the better protaganists of the New Approach was beginning to develop his own style when, as he wrote in his brilliant book with John Hunt On and Off The Beaten Track:

“There are times in life when you really believe that you’ve discovered something other than a cliché. This was the time: within a month it was a cliché. Colin Gifford’s Decline of Steam had made it so. Whilst on the one hand he had broken the stranglehold of the old guard who had monopolised the photographic content of railway publications since the 1890’s, he had also blown the new horizons that a few of us had begun to see clean off the edge of the earth. It took a few months to recover, but we now had a standard to work to, and there was a new sense of creativity emerging, not just in photography, but in the whole field of the arts as well”

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Colin Gifford – 92166 runs beside the St.Helens Canal at Winwick Quay with a northbound freight

While there’s enough to write a whole article on the ‘New Approach’, it was best summed up by Ian Krause as ‘….a hybrid of pictorialism and photo-journalism.’ To that end, as described above, the approach while no doubt well planned, was far more informal than Links, in a more ‘candid’ style, that took in not just the engine and train, but the urban and rural landscapes that the railway was a part of. The name ‘Each a Glimpse’ is actually taken from a line of Robert Louis Stephenson poem ‘From a Railway Carriage’ which is actually about the fleeting sights seen when travelling on a train, but is actually an appropriate description of some of the images in the book. In some, the train is but a tiny part of the whole composition, a fleeting part of the landscape distinguishable only by a silhouette or a trail of white steam, very much as you would see as if you were walking down a road or a path in that era. It lacks the precision of Links work, maybe because of the smaller format it was taken on giving less definition, but it feels very gritty and British, very much of its era. It’s like Get Carter and other British dramas of the time. And yet Gifford work is incredibly creative in a different way. While Link sculpted light and arranged engines. Giffords pallete was different. He worked with what he saw in front of him to realise his own vision. His was not an untrained eye – he attended art school and was himself influenced in his railway photography by Jean-Michel Hartmann’s book Magie du Rail.

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Colin Gifford – a class 5MT leaves Tebay with a northbound freight

Neither photographer was without his critics – the ‘New Approach’ had been derided as “….an out of focus blur passing some grainy cooling towers….”, while Wikipedia quotes Gifford as describing Link’s work as ‘too contrived’ and ‘pantomime’.

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Colin Gifford – Bathgate

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Colin Gifford -Morning Freight At Preston

It is worth touching on the subject matter itself as well, as after all these books are about railways. We’re blessed in the UK to have an abundance of heritage railways with an abundance of engines like Austerities and Black 5′s, so seeing these in action (and not on charters), in some quite familiar locations is quite fascinating. But then when you see the enormous 2-8-8-4 American locomotives double heading mile long coal trains, Links photographs might as well be of UFO’s landing at Roswell. It’d be interesting to get an American view of the British engines, seemingly related to the American behemoths only in the principles of steam propulsion. But one thing that both photographers do have in common is there inclusion of people in the photographs, as well as the surrounding landscape. Giffords recording of the British urban landscapes of the 60′s is very much of that era – foggy, grainy, Lowry-esque, remisniscent of some of the work done by the likes of John Bulmer and Don McCullin in the north of England. His style was often to have the train just as one part of the composition, sometimes only a tiny part of it. By contrast, Links style had the train as the obvious focal point, but in varying degrees of visual importance. However, Along The Lines contains a lot more of Links photographs of people of the railway, and some with no trains at all. Interestingly, in Links letter to the railway asking for their co-operation in the project, he did state that he would like to include an employee in every photograph (a worthy aspiration that didn’t ultimately happen, but there is a heck of a lot of human interest in the body of work). As a consequence, of all of the books of Links photographs, this is by far the most definitive, rounded record of the railway.

While Links work is unique and unlike any other railway photographs before or since, it has to be viewed in that context. Other American photographers were taking photographs that were more candid in their approach, although the ‘New Approach’ probably didn’t make it over the Atlantic because American steam had all but disappeared by 1960, a time when the New Approach had yet to evolve. And while I wasn’t around at the time, this was well before the internet age, and I can’t imagine there being too much transatlantic sharing of images. But viewing the two side by side is like comparing Dallas with Coronation Street. Links work can be almost cinematic in its style and attention to detail, while Giffords is more of a 1960′s Kitchen Sink drama – gritty, urban, real. Both were masters of their approach, and railway photography is a better place for it.

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Colin Gifford – Trafford Park

Order the books at Amazon:Each a Glimpse…
and
O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Last Great Steam Railroad