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Originally published Friday, January 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover" | Capturing the truth, as fleeting as a train

It would be hard to imagine a tale of love gone wrong as convoluted as that of photographer O. Winston Link, his much-younger wife, Conchita...

Special to The Seattle Times

It would be hard to imagine a tale of love gone wrong as convoluted as that of photographer O. Winston Link, his much-younger wife, Conchita Mendoza, and her lover, Edward Hayes. Their story is the stuff of pulp fiction, a perfect storm of clashing agendas, conflicting desires, greedy corruption and lies upon lies upon lies. In the final analysis, we understand the legal details completely, but the truth remains elusive.

There's a good film noir to be made from this morass of human foibles, but British documentarian Paul Yule has the advantage of nonfictional context: He first encountered Link and Mendoza when making a film about Link's masterful artistry in 1990. At that time, Link was fast becoming the Ansel Adams of railway Americana, his reputation rising as a unique chronicler of all-American steam engines, frozen in time at the end of their history in stark, black-and-white masterpieces created, mostly in the 1950s, through an innovative process of large-format flash photography. Trains, and their place in American culture, have never looked as beautiful as they do in Link's photography.

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover," a documentary directed by Paul Yule. 80 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Northwest Film Forum (no 9 p.m. screening Thursday).

Fifteen years later, Yule returned to find another story altogether: Mendoza, who was 48 when she married 73-year-old Link in 1983, had been convicted for her role in an art-world scandal that ultimately caused Link's photography to skyrocket in value. With her lover, Hayes, she had orchestrated an elaborate scheme to hold Link captive in his own home, steal more than 1,400 of his valuable prints and clandestinely sell them with the expectation that nobody would catch on to her crime.

As Yule's film unfolds, however, we learn that the truth is far more complicated than a smug prosecutor's account of Mendoza's wrongdoing. It's revealed that Link was a stubborn, bigoted eccentric with a paranoid streak, and that Mendoza — who had brilliantly fostered Link's elevated stature in the art world — was responding to his rejection of her with the hellacious fury of a woman scorned. Even after it's clear that she's a shameless liar, there's reason to believe her actions were personally if not legally justified.

Hayes is seen as a simple accomplice; far more complicated is Yule's provocative understanding that truth can be subjectively defined by conflicting points of view. We can easily spot the criminals in this case, but can we quickly condemn the nature of the crime?

Jeff Shannon:

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