Editorial: A new look at O. West Virginia’s legacy. Winston Link | Editorial
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “docudrama” dates back to 1961 – a tidbit that might surprise the 21st century visual media consumer, who can’t wander far down the metaphorical lanes of channel selection or streaming without stumbling. on the term.
Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications further defines docudrama as “a factual depiction of actual events”, even if the events are reconstructed using cinematic storytelling techniques instead of using documentary-style footage.
Docudramas often, but not always, seek to bring controversial issues and controversial recent events to life. The technique is also employed to give immediacy to stories of a more distant history.
A stark 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 best-selling non-fiction book of the same name by Roanoke author and former Roanoke Times member Beth Macy, the show dramatized the ravages of the opioid crisis caused by irresponsible marketing of Oxycontin. The show focused in particular on how the drug tore families apart in working-class Appalachia, and how some of those affected were able to overcome, deal with, and even fight back.
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Lead actor Michael Keaton won a Golden Globe in January for his performance as Dr. Samuel Minnix, a composite character whose experiences of being duped by Oxycontin marketing and eventually becoming addicted to drugs incorporate the hardships of the subjects Macy’s 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 can really spark thought, conversation, real change,” he said. “I’m lucky to be able to do something that could make someone’s life better.”
In the spirit expressed by Keaton, using art to improve lives, we’d like to draw attention to another, shorter film that won’t be seen by millions on any major streaming service. It highlights aspects of our region’s history and heritage that deserve to be continually commemorated and celebrated, a source of comfort in these increasingly stressful times.
From 1955 to 1960, before the term “docudrama” was even coined, Roanoke served as home to an artist who created works that were essentially docudramas, although his medium was always photography rather than images. animated.
One could say, however, that the images captured by O. Winston Link are movingboth in the sense of dynamic movement contained in his compositions, and in the deep sense of nostalgia they inspire in their depictions of a bygone era, the era of the Norfolk & Western steam locomotive.
Link, who died in 2001 at the age of 86, was a trained civil engineer who became a successful and remarkably creative commercial photographer in New York. Yet he had never had the opportunity to make his own art in his own way on a large scale. He recognized that opportunity had arrived when he came to Staunton in 1955 to work on a photo shoot for Westinghouse.
Recognizing that Norfolk & Western was the last steam-only railroad and knowing that N&W was headquartered in nearby Roanoke, Link presented a photography project to railroad management, who offered him everything the access it needed but refused 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, preparing him to produce works for the ages.
A new half-hour video about Link’s extraordinary achievement, “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 West Virginia Historical Society, which operated the O. Winston Link Museum, brings together what comes as close to 2022 as it gets to a behind-the-scenes look at how Link created his extraordinary images.
On Saturday, “Dreams in Steam” premiered on ECHO, Blue Ridge PBS’s streaming channel, available online at www.blueridgepbs.org/echo.
While “Dreams in Steam” doesn’t appear on Hollywood award shortlists like “Dopesick,” it’s fun to note that there are Roanoke Times alumni involved as well. Photojournalist Stephanie Klein-Davis explains some of Link’s techniques and innovations, while graphic designer Steve Stinson produced the video.
The “docudrama” part comes in when we learn how Link captured his images, which are both tableaux representing a very specific moment in history and magnificent in their timelessness.
Link didn’t take slices of life like a documentary photographer or photojournalist would. All of his photos of trains billowing with steam as they roll through nightscapes were painstakingly staged and perfected through the editing process, decades before advances in technology made “repair in post” a cliche of the film industry.
He used a special battery, intensely bright lights he designed himself and up to a kilometer of electrical cord, transporting them – with the help of assistants – to hard-to-reach vantage points, the all in search of the perfect image. The people who appear in his photos were railroad workers and residents of the towns and villages where Link set up his equipment, doing the things they did in their daily lives, but doing them under Link’s direction, posing at the places and specific times he needed. let them be as his arsenal of light bulbs lit up the night and his camera shutter clicked.
The people were as important to Link as the trains, allowing him to show how integrated the railroad was with the communities the industry served and employed, infusing these historical documents with the liveliness of a Norman Rockwell painting and the classic film noir mystery.
Historical society director Lynsey Allie said the O. Winston Link Museum will open a new exhibit of Link’s photos in April. It’s good news.
Most of “Dreams in Steam” consists of lingering stares at Link’s finely detailed stills, and that’s more than enough to fascinate and entertain.