Volume 76, Number 11 | August 2 - 8, 2006

Courtesy First Run/Icarus Films

“Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia,” one of Link’s great photos which his wife, Conchita, would later be accused of stealing.

Blood on the tracks

The long, mostly happy life of railroad photographer O. Winston Link

By Jerry Tallmer

I can still remember The Tomato bouncing in to the newspaper where I was working, her arms loaded with a batch of her husband’s wondrous photographs of steam engines of days gone by.

“Here,” she said, plopping the photos on my desk. “Link sent me with these. To go with your story. Take your pick. Just get them back to us.”

This was a week or so after her husband himself, O. Winston Link — “the old OWL,” he called himself — had come to the paper to be interviewed by me. America was about to discover one of the great unknown artists of photography in its midst. “I’ll send my wife with more photos,” he’d said.

The Tomato. Conchita Mendoza Link. He was in his late 70s. She looked, oh, 35. A fiery, sexy, laughing redhead. Somebody even calls her “a tomato” in the movie. It was as if Lucille Ball had just waltzed in to the New York Post, batted her eyes at the guy who’s going to write about the old OWL, bathed that writer with a radiant smile, and waltzed out.

What an amazing guy this old OWL is, I thought to myself. He must have something besides his camera. Holy moly, plenty of steam in that engine.

The movie, at the Film Forum on Houston Street through August 8, is called “The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover: The Story of Railroad Photography Great O. Winston Link.” And the Conchita Link you meet in it — in jail and/or between jails — is now a ravaged grayhead in her middle 60s. (The Conchita who looked 35 to me that day at the paper was actually hovering past 50.)

It is a sordid, painful, ridiculous story that this 79-minute BBC documentary by Paul Yule tells — a true-life soap opera of exploitation, betrayal, adultery, physical and mental abuse, counter-abuse, OWL’s alleged emprisonment in a basement darkroom, divorce, grand larceny (alleged, alleged, always alleged), entrapment, self-entrapment, and, finally, emprisonment of the more standard sort.

It is, in short, a he-said, she-said saga par excellence, with Conchita coming out the loser — behind bars, thanks to some lip-licking Javert-style prosecution by Westchester County DA Jeanine F. Pirro — and the old OWL coming out lonely and dead, at 86, in 2001.

But what producer/director Yule’s film does not tell you, except in fleeting glimpses and snatches — some photos on a wall, some prints in a pile on desk or table, a picture held in a hand here and there — is what’s all the shootin’ fur. Mr. Yule, a Brit, has the excuse of having covered that ground 16 years ago in “Trains That Passed in the Night,” but not everyone who sees his current project will have caught that one.

What’s all the shootin’ fur? O. Winston Link’s photographs! Of locomotives, and the trains they’re pulling. A vanished breed. Gone like the dinosaurs. Gone like the snows of yesteryear. Gone like the sunburst sexuality of Conchita Mendoza Link. Once again, Marcel Proust, you said it all.

Photographs, 1,400 of them and more, epitomized — climaxed by — the masterpiece the old OWL titled “Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia,” taken by him in that metropolis one summer night in 1956.

It’s a triple-whammy of transportation: A smoke-plumed locomotive is pulling a train of Pullman cars past an aggregation of automobiles in the dark at a drive-in motion-picture theater at the very instant a large airplane is whipping across the movie screen from left to right.

Or mostly taken that night. “Of course you have to do some faking,” O. Winston Link had told me. “Just the way you have to set up all those lights.”

The particular faking in this instance, he revealed, was laying in, on the photo’s drive-in screen, the still of an airliner from some Hollywood epic. None of which changed the fact that in the 1950s, at various locales in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland along the route of the Norfolk & Western Railway through the Shenandoah Valley and Allegheny Mountains, the old OWL had caught forever, on classic black-and-white negatives, a strand of the American soul that was about to vanish like the steam technology going up in the smoke of that locomotive.

A cordial old codger is perhaps the way I would have summed up O. Winston Link quite apart from his memorable achievement. Who knew that this old codger, according to his brother — a sort of hostile witness in the film — “didn’t like black people, Jews, Italians, Spaniards, or anybody not Anglo-Saxon”; that according to the post-marital Conchita, Link was capable of beating a woman into hematoma of face and arms.

Once upon a time she had been pleasured “by the fact that he doted on me.” Now she wants the world to know that he would from time to time bring home “from the Grand Central Station men’s room [some stranger] to make love to me while he [the old OWL] would be sitting in the living room with his penis hanging out.”

Who knew that she, the pride and joy of that old codger, would someday, according to her trial and conviction for grand larceny, lock the old boy in his basement darkroom to keep on turning out more than $1 million worth of prints that she could steal. And then, after serving five years in New York State prisons, incredibly try to sell another batch of purloined O. W. Link railroad prints … on eBay!

There are two sides — twenty sides, fifty sides — to every story. “I had the feeling I was becoming Winston Link. I was losing my identity,” the latter-day Conchita tells Yule’s camera and microphone. Those chains on the cellar door were to keep Winston from coming upstairs and beating her up. “As Jesus said on the Cross: It is finished.”

“I’m 81 now and racing death,” Link writes his lawyer. “Conchita’s gambling on this.”

Her lover and collaborator, Edward Hayes — they later got married — pleads guilty. “When you don’t have a Park Avenue lawyer,” the convicted and jailed Conchita tells filmmaker Yule, “that’s what justice is all about.”

And O. Winston Link?

“He’s afraid he’s going to be famous when he’s dead,” says the tired tomato.

Well, he’s not as famous as he ought to be. But that will come, that will come.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER, HIS WIFE, HER LOVER. Produced and directed by Paul Yule. A First Run / Icarus release. 79 minutes. Through August 8 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, (212) 727-8110.

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