The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover

  • 2006
  • NR
  • Documentary

In the summer of 1996, the insular and rarefied world of fine-art photography was rocked by the kind of sensational story usually associated with Hollywood celebrities. Chonchita Mendoza, the much-younger second wife of Brooklyn-born commercial photographer O. Winston Link, was indicted in a Westchester courthouse for grand larceny and the theft of over...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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In the summer of 1996, the insular and rarefied world of fine-art photography was rocked by the kind of sensational story usually associated with Hollywood celebrities. Chonchita Mendoza, the much-younger second wife of Brooklyn-born commercial photographer O. Winston Link, was indicted in a Westchester courthouse for grand larceny and the theft of over 1,400 of Link's valuable prints. Link had become famous relatively late in his career for stunning black-and-white nighttime images of steam locomotives, which he'd been taking throughout the 1940s and '50s. But his wife's indictment, while the culmination of a bitter two-year ordeal that began with divorce proceedings and horrendous accusations, was far from the end of a lurid story that would drag on until after Link's 2001 death. Link accused Mendoza of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into a private bank account and stealing his work, but the worst allegation was that she and her lover, Edward Hayes, a railroad man Link had hired to help restore a decommissioned steam engine he'd bought, kept him a virtual prisoner in the basement of their home, forcing him to churn out prints. Mendoza claimed that she had turned Link's artwork into a lucrative business venture, and that whatever prints she had in her possession were given to her by her husband. She admitted to having blocked Link from the house's upper floors with chains, but did so only because he had become physically abusive and she feared for her safety. It's a nasty, surprising story that received quite a bit of press at the time, but filmmaker Paul Yule tells it with far more objectivity than most contemporaneous news reports. Yule began following Link's fascinating career and marriage to Chonchita 15 years earlier, when he filmed the seemingly happy couple for his documentary O. WINSTON LINK: TRAINS THAT PASSED IN THE NIGHT (1990), and seems to have his own doubts about a story that reads like something out of a James M. Cain playbook: A scheming, gold-digging adulteress, the besotted chump who falls into her web, and the helpless old man they imprison and attempt to defraud. But like any good mystery, the deeper one digs — and Yule digs deep, asking lawyers and witnesses all the right questions — the less certain the facts become. That "poor old man" starts to look a bit like a cantankerous, hateful old bully. That crusading Westchester district attorney begins looking a little like an opportunistic grandstander with something to gain by Mendoza's conviction. And what of Mendoza herself, now serving the kind of sentence usually doled out to killers? See this disturbing but undeniably entertaining film and decide for yourself.

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