Martin Sorrell on the photographs of Winston O. Link

Vanishing Point

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Think of an Edward Hopper picture, Main Street, Anywheresville, USA, a warm summer’s evening. Geometric buildings, neat and desolate. Give them names: Northfork Drug; The Hub Men’s Clothing; First Clark National Bank; Dr J. P. Wade, Physician, Walk In. Remove Hopper’s colours, see it in black-and-white. In an open window a table-lamp illumines a man’s face. He’s the only human visible. The scene is empty, and you might be hearing utter silence if it weren’t for a huge steam locomotive dragging a freight train down the track that runs along the middle of the street. The locomotive’s as tall as a house, its headlight and its white smoke piercing the dark. No engineer, no fireman visible. A ghost train driving itself.

Another scene. A young American called Colly crouches on a station platform at night, hoping the train about to blast through will be slow enough for him to jump it, so he can join the hobos heading west. Colly’s just been dumped – again – by Ginny, who’s driven off, this time for real.

I hear the train coming. She is highballing all right. No stiffs in that blind baggage . . . My skin is heavy with her noise. Her light cuts a wide slice in the fog. She’s hell-bent for election . . . I watch her beat by. A worn-out tie belches mud with her weight. She’s just too fast to jump. Plain and simple. I get up. I’ll spend tonight at home. I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan – maybe even Germany or China. I don’t know yet.

The black-and-white Anywheresville is in fact the real town of Northfork, West Virginia, and it’s the subject of one of the eeriest photographs of the last steam trains on the Norfolk & Western Railroad, part of a series taken in the late 1950s by the New York photographer O. Winston Link. And it’s my favourite of the two thousand plus that Link took with old-fashioned equipment, great square cameras, thick electrical cables, flash b

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About the contributor

Martin Sorrell teaches postgraduates, translates, writes for radio and listens to trains in the night.

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