In 1955, O Winston Link set out to capture the last days of steam railroading in America . Responsible for establish rail photography, Link also pioneered night photography, producing several well known examples including Hotshot Eastbound, above and Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole showing a train crossing a bridge above children bathing. 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.” In the 50s, Link used a large-format view camera to take 2,400 pictures, most of them at night, of Norfolk and Western’s coal and passenger trains — the country’s last steam engines. The company retired its last steam engine in May 1960.
Although his photos exuded spontaneity, they were often the result of elaborate preparations and darkroom manipulations. “Hot Shot East Bound” was photographed on August 2, 1956, in Iaeger, West Virginia, in an effort to depict small-town American life at the end of an era. As the steam engine symbolically exits the frame, a young couple in Link’s own 1952 Buick convertible takes center stage, both literally and metaphorically. Later, in his darkroom, Link added the U.S. Air Force Sabre airplane on the movie screen to extend this metaphoric power. The photo was a poignant display of a cultural lifestyle in speedy transition. The 50s marked the beginning of excess, decadence, and conspicuous consumption. For Link, no landscape embodied this as effectively as the drive-in theater, a cultural space first created in 1928 by Richard Hollingshead in response to the United State’s burgeoning car culture. 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 and less than 5% to public transportation. Los Angeles had more cars than the whole of Asia, and GM’s profits overtook Belgium economy.
(See the Smithsonian Magazine’s account of how the photo was taken).