The Daily Heller: The Beauty of American Industry

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In Christopher Payne’s new book of “industrial” photographs, Made in America, he writes, “Many people I know have never set foot in a factory. Decades of global outsourcing and a flood of cheap imports have decimated sectors of American manufacturing and hollowed out once-thriving communities.” So, he set out to explore the massive industrial power that still exists in this country—and the result is a set of photos that will make you proud.

From the craft to the space industries, Payne cannot help but raise our expectations of what the American worker is capable of doing, and implicitly conveys an optimistic sense of what’s being accomplished, despite the realities of global manufacturing competition. This book is not patriotic propaganda. It is awesome and real. Or, as Payne writes, “As environmental concerns and the pandemic have become urgent wake-up calls for us to rethink global supply chains, U.S. manufacturing is making a comeback.”

I asked Payne about his particular passion for pulling the curtain back to examine the labor that supports the nation’s reasons for being.

Christopher, the theme of Made in America is such a grand slam, particularly when so many products are being produced overseas. You’ve captured the scope of American industry from once handcrafted ideals to digital robotics. You’ve humanized the worker and the machine all at once. What prompted this passion and compassion for industrial manufacturing?
I’m trained as an architect and have always had an interest in how things are made. After college and through graduate school, I worked for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), a branch within the National Park Service entrusted with documenting the nation’s industrial heritage. For HAER, I produced measured drawings of old bridges, grain elevators and power plants, and I had the opportunity to live and work in remote areas of the country, places I found fascinating precisely because they were not typical tourist destinations. These experiences instilled in me a deep appreciation for American history, technology and ingenuity.  

Bollman Hat Company, Location: Adamstown PA
General Pencil, Jersey City NJ

I have seen machines in this book I never knew existed. Were there any surprises for you in terms of what industries exist?
A lot of things are still made in the U.S., but you’re not going to find them on the shelves of Wal-Mart or Best Buy. I was relieved to learn that many durable home goods are still made in the U.S., like Whirlpool appliances and Kohler bathtubs. These factories are impressive because they do real manufacturing from the ground up, with raw materials, and not just final assembly from parts sourced elsewhere. Quite often in my research I would stumble upon companies that have survived—and prospered—by carving out niche markets for themselves, like Stern Pinball in Chicago, and Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale, CA. These smaller places were easier to get into than the big factories, and the pinball machines and surgical robots, for example, were fascinating to photograph. 

S & D Spinning Mill, Millbury MA
Picker and Duster, Bartlettyarns, Harmony ME

I have always thought that the assembly line was invented to make workers simply cogs in the wheel. But you’ve shown through photos—for instance, of the pencil factory and the airplane makers—that they’re not just tools in a monotonous cycle. Was it your intention to celebrate their individuality?
I wanted to celebrate the worker and individual craftsmanship because most manufacturing, both old and new, happens at human scale, at workstations within hand’s reach. Big ships, planes and generators are built up from sections, which are themselves an assemblage of smaller sections put together piece by piece, one at a time. Wind turbine blades two to three hundred feet long are draped with fiber glass, rolled out by hand like carpet. Even where automation has taken hold—as with newspapers, pharmaceuticals and computer chips—the human eye and hand abound, monitoring production and maintaining equipment. There will always be a place for people where flexibility and intuitive touch are required, and especially in tight spaces where robots can’t go.

Peeps, Just Born candy factory, Bethlehem PA
Spangler Candy factory, Bryan OH

The way you photograph many of the machines is also surprisingly powerful. You capture a kind of humanity. Sure, they can be imposing but they also seem integral to the work of human beings, meaning that the operators must have a transcendent relationship with them. Is this true?
It is mesmerizing to watch someone immersed in their craft. My favorite kind of picture to make is probably the environmental portrait, where the worker is literally inside a machine, as if it was a stage set. After I lock in composition and lighting, I let the action unfold and wait for the peak moment of elegance in the choreography of production.  

Kohler Factory, Kohler, Wisconsin
Kohler Factory, Kohler, Wisconsin

What are some of your favorite images from among these? 
I never tire of photographing “big things that spin,” and the pictures I made of GE jet engines and turbines are some of my favorites. These machines are the epitome of industrial design, the perfect balance of form and function, dazzlingly complex yet familiar enough that we know what we’re looking at, even if we don’t understand how they work.  

One image that was everything I hoped it would be—and more—is the picture of the green Boeing 737 fuselages lined up at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, KS. The color was surreal and the scale unlike anything I’d ever seen, reminiscent of production levels during WWII.

I’m also fond of the images I made earlier this year at the Peeps factory for The New York Times‘ kids section. I typically shy away from “inventory” shots because they don’t convey much information about process, but when I saw the sea of Peeps marshmallows snaking along the curved conveyor, I knew I would never find anything like this again. 

GE Steam Turbine and Generator Plant, Schenectady NY
GE Aviation Lafayette Engine Facility, Lafayette IN

Where, if anywhere, did you feel most at home?
I felt most at home in the factories that were close by, where I had unlimited access, like Steinway, General Pencil and The New York Times Printing Plant. Here I could take time to understand the subject, get to know the employees, and let the work evolve organically. These were also places to which I felt a deep personal connection: Steinway because of my family’s musical background, pencils because of my lifelong passion for drawing, and the printing plant because of my fond memories selling newspapers as a kid growing up in Boston.

Relativity Space, Long Beach CA
Relativity Space, Long Beach CA

Do you believe that industry is still essential to the USA, and will the ones you’re presenting be the core of what will remain?
In the last few years, the industrial landscape in America has been re-energized by pandemic supply chain shortages, competition with China, national security issues, energy concerns and federal legislation. For sure, consumer goods like apparel and electronics aren’t coming back anytime soon, but essential technologies like computer chips, perhaps the most complex products on earth, have become a priority of national security. We haven’t seen this kind of investment in the future in decades, and some of the newer factories I visited had the buzz of tech startups. There is, for sure, a certain romance in the idea of making our own goods here in the U.S., but it is no longer entirely nostalgia; it is also opportunity and necessity.  

In the coming years, factories will continue to open and close, and there is no way to predict if this resurgence will last. Without a doubt, the ultra-modern places I’ve photographed for this book will themselves become outdated and replaced one day. It is one long continuum, hopefully towards a brighter future. 

As I was gathering captions for the book, I was sad to learn that several of the textile mills I’d photographed had closed—not so much due to competition or lack of business but because it was time to call it quits; the owners wanted to retire. The challenge with all manufacturing is finding new talent and young people to learn the multitude of vocational trades required to keep production humming. The lack of qualified workers is a common refrain I hear over and over from plant managers, and sometimes I fear the greatest impediment to a resurgence in American manufacturing might not be from abroad but from within.

Boeing South Carolina, North Charleston SC