It ain’t about the money

I had dinner with an old friend the other night and talked on and on (as I too often do) about a documentary project called Our America, where we report on what is happening in this country during the first decade of the new century.

Our America is a privately-funded foundation effort that includes written essays, photo features and video documentaries.

“Sounds great,” he said. “How are you going to make money off it?”

I tried to explain that making money wasn’t important.

“Listen you dumb idealistic bastard,” he said, “when are you going to realize that everything is about making money.”

The comment upset me and has continued to haunt me during the past week.

Is that all there is to life today? Making money? Do we have no other purpose on this earth than the never-ending quest to fatten our bank accounts?

God I hope not.

I make a decent living doing things that interest me and ignoring things that don’t. My wife and I aren’t filthy rich, but we have a good life. Our houses and a farm are paid for, we have money in the bank and a decent retirement fund (although it was a lot better before public corporations started cooking the books and tanking the stock market).

Yet whenever I tell someone about a new project, one that interests me more for the challenge than any potential for economic gain, I usually get one of those stares that says I’m missing the point.

Then the conversation invariably turns to money.

In a society where the role models are megabuck pop music stars and baseball players who threaten to go on strike because they make “only” three or four million a year, I guess the chase for the almighty buck takes center stage.

In Hollywood, a movie is considered a flop if it doesn’t gross at least $100 million and it must top $200 million to be called a “hit.”

College football players who have yet to prove themselves in the pros hire agents and hold out for multi-million contracts with extravagant signing bonuses. Baseball’s All-Star game this year was a farce because the game had to be called in a late-inning tie when managers on both sides ran out of players (seems the megabuck all stars bagged out as soon as they got some playing time, heading for the private jets and the ESPN “Espy” awards show in Hollywood).

In NASCAR, a sport I have loved since knowing what a car was, money has taken over what used to be a pastime where people raced on Saturday nights for bragging rights and little more. Rookie drivers now expect multi-million dollar contracts and a driver won’t do a personal appearance without a guarantee of big bucks up front.

This is why I admire men like the late O. Winston Link.

Link was a commercial photographer from New York in the 1950s. He was shooting an assignment in Virginia during that decade when he noticed that the Norfolk & Western Railway still ran steam locomotives (all the other big railroads had switched to diesel).

Link went to N&W management and asked them what they were doing to document the end of the steam era.

“Nothing,” they said. “When we replace the steam engines with diesel locomotives, we’ll cut up the old engines and sell them for scrap.”

Link loved railroads, so spent the next seven years of his life, at his own expense, taking pictures of the old N&W steam locomotives as they roared through places like Luray and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. He shot the trains as they moved at night behind drive-in movie theaters, by old gas stations with gravity pumps and through the downtowns of a dozen small Blue Ridge Mountain communities.

After he took the photos, he filed them away. N&W showed no interest in them and he was satisfied that he had captured a little bit of history.

Some years later, a book publisher needed photos of steam locomotives and asked to see Link’s shots. After reviewing the photos, the publisher forgot about the original project and asked to publish a book of Link’s work (three were eventually published).

“It was nice,” Link said at the time, “but I took the pictures more for myself than anyone else.”

Yet when you look at the photos today (and I do often), you realize Link captured not only the passing of the steam locomotive era, but a time and a way of life that no longer exist.

The books sold moderately well, mostly to train buffs, but the royalties never offset what Link spent over seven years taking the photos.

Which was OK with him.

“When you do something you love you don’t have to make money off it,” he said. “You just have to enjoy what you are doing.”