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A new look at O. Winston Link's Southwest Virginia legacy

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According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the word “docudrama” dates back to 1961 — a tidbit that might come as a surprise to the 21st-century consumer of visual media, who can’t wander far down the metaphorical lanes of channel or streaming selection without tripping over the term.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago further defines the docudrama as “a fact-based representation of real events,” though one in which events are reconstructed using cinematic storytelling techniques instead of making use of documentary-style footage.

Docudramas often, though not always, seek to bring controversial issues and contentious recent events to life. The technique is also employed to give immediacy to retellings from more distant history.

A prominent example of the former with a strong Southwest Virginia connection, Hulu’s eight-part miniseries “Dopesick,” has continued to rack up accolades. Based on the bestselling nonfiction book of the same name by Roanoke author and former Roanoke Times staffer Beth Macy, the show dramatized the ravages of the opioid crisis caused by the feckless marketing of OxyContin. The show focused especially on how the drug tore apart the families of working-class Appalachians and how some of those affected were able to overcome, manage and even fight back.

Lead actor Michael Keaton took home a Golden Globe in January for his performance as Dr. Samuel Minnix, a composite character whose experiences with getting duped by OxyContin’s marketing and ultimately becoming addicted to the drug incorporate the real-life ordeals of the subjects Macy interviewed.

Last month, he followed that achievement with another Best Actor Award, this time from the Screen Actors Guild. “I have a job where I can be part of a production like ‘Dopesick’ that actually can spawn thought, conversation, actual change,” he said. “I’m fortunate to be able to do something that might improve someone’s life.”

In the spirit Keaton expressed, using art to improve lives, we’d like to call attention to another film, shorter, that won’t be seen by millions on a major streaming service. It highlights aspects of our region’s history and heritage that deserve continual remembrance and celebration, a source of comfort in these ever more stressful times.

From 1955 to 1960, before the term “docudrama” was even coined, Roanoke served as the home away from home for an artist who created works that were essentially docudramas, though his medium was still photography rather than moving pictures.

One could argue, though, that the images captured by O. Winston Link are moving, both in the sense of the dynamic motion contained within his compositions, and in the deep sense of nostalgia they inspire in their portrayals of a bygone era, the era of the Norfolk & Western steam locomotive.

Link, who died in 2001 at age 86, was a civil engineer by training who became a successful and strikingly creative commercial photographer in New York City. Yet he had never had the opportunity to make his own art his own way on a large scale. He recognized that this opportunity had arrived when he came to Staunton in 1955 to work on a photoshoot for Westinghouse.

Recognizing that Norfolk & Western was the last railroad running solely on steam power, and knowing that N&W was headquartered in nearby Roanoke, Link pitched a photography project to the railroad’s management, who offered him all the access he needed but declined to provide any funding. Far from being a setback, the development allowed Link to pursue his own vision, freeing him from the restrictions of a corporate commission, setting him up to produce works for the ages.

A new half-hour video about Link’s extraordinary accomplishment, “Dreams in Steam: The Extraordinary Vision of O. Winston Link,” was screened for visitors earlier this month during the Roanoke Arts Pop! event at the Taubman Museum of Art. This documentary from the Historical Society of Western Virginia, which operated the O. Winston Link Museum, assembles the closest thing possible in 2022 to a behind-the-scenes look at how Link created his extraordinary images.

Saturday, “Dreams in Steam” premiered on ECHO, the streaming channel of Blue Ridge PBS, found online at www.blueridgepbs.org/echo.

Though “Dreams in Steam” won’t appear on Hollywood award shortlists in the manner of “Dopesick,” it’s fun to note that there are also Roanoke Times alumni involved. Photojournalist Stephanie Klein-Davis provides explanations of some of Link’s techniques and innovations, while graphic artist Steve Stinson produced the video.

The “docudrama” part comes in when one learns how Link captured his images, which are both tableaus depicting a very specific moment in history and gorgeous in their timelessness.

Link did not take slice-of-life shots the way a documentary photographer or photojournalist would. All his photos of trains billowing steam as they rolled through nighttime landscapes were elaborately staged0 and further perfected through the editing process, decades before advances in technology made “fixing it in post” a film industry cliche.

He used a special battery, intensely bright lights he designed himself and up to a mile of electrical cord, hauling them out — with some help from assistants — to difficult-to-reach vantage points, all in pursuit of the perfect picture. The people who appear in his photos were railroad workers and residents of the towns and villages where Link set up his gear, doing the things they did during their daily lives, but doing them at Link’s direction, posing at the precise places and times he needed them to be as his arsenal of flashbulbs lit up the night and his camera shutter clicked.

The people were as important to Link as the trains, letting him show how thoroughly the railroad was integrated into the communities the industry served and employed, infusing these historical documents with the vivaciousness of a Norman Rockwell painting and the mysteriousness of classic film noir.

Historical Society Manager Lynsey Allie says the O. Winston Link Museum will open a new exhibition of Link’s photos in April. That’s welcome news.

Most of “Dreams in Steam” consists of lingering looks at Link’s intricately detailed stills, and that’s more than enough to fascinate and entertain.

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