There are many places in the world I would like to see … but most (certainly these days) are best viewed from a distance. This is what makes Christopher Payne's photo essays so incredibly valuable and intriguing to those trapped inside and the vicarious seekers like me. He records the exotic, hidden, forgotten, unknown and off-limits relics of the industrial era. Payne is a maestro of architectural and industrial photography. Trained as an architect, he is fascinated by design, assembly and the built form. His work, to recall the title of a 1950s television series, makes it feel like "YOU ARE THERE."
His first book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, offers rare views of the behemoth machines hidden behind those matter-of-fact stone and brick facades in New York City. Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, which includes an essay by the late Oliver Sacks, is a somber exposé of abandoned and ruinous state mental institutions. North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, explores New York's once-habited islands that sit eerily in the East River.
Payne’s website notes that his recent work has veered away from the documentation of the obsolete toward a celebration of American craftsmanship. Making Steinway: An American Workplace is a tour through the Steinway & Sons piano factory in Astoria, Queens, where skilled workers create some of the finest musical instruments in the world. Payne captures moments of the choreographies of production, and inspects the parts and pieces of the instruments that will never be visible outside of the factory, telling a story of intricacy, precision and care he fears is becoming all too rare in the modern workplace.
His next book about American manufacturing will be published in 2022.
Here, he discusses his process and the work.
Vaccines are on all our minds this holiday. You recently published in The New Yorker a remarkable photo essay of the Corning vial factory [above]. Perfect timing and excellent journalism. How did you get access to photograph the vaccine vials? Were there any restrictions? What is special about these vials? How did you feel being so close to a historic "moment"?
The vaccine vials grew out of a personal project photographing Corning’s optical fiber plant in North Carolina, so I already had access to their facilities. Cell phones were not allowed, and I couldn’t interfere with production, but otherwise I was free to photograph whatever caught my eye—as long as it didn’t reveal proprietary information. The vials were particularly challenging to photograph because they are clear and less than 1" in diameter and barely 1-3/4" tall. They’re special because the glass is dipped in molten salt, the “secret sauce,” which makes it stronger than traditional borosilicate, and less likely to delaminate.
When you visited the abandoned hospital sanctuary, New York's North Brother Island, what did you expect to find?
When I first stepped foot on North Brother Island in 2006 [above], I expected to find well-preserved time capsules from its days as a quarantine hospital, much like I had encountered with the state hospitals in Asylum. But decades of abandonment had ravaged the structures and anything of value had long been stripped away. Where there was once a tidy campus of manicured lawns, streets and sidewalks, an urban forest had sprung up, with vegetation consuming the structures for most of the year. The juxtaposition of decaying buildings with the lush landscape made for a sublime experience, heightened by the surreal feeling of being completely alone in the middle of New York City. I would like to believe the photographs I made are not just windows into the past but also a glimpse into the future, into a world without people, where the natural order we try to alter always reasserts itself in the end.
What I love about your photographic essays is that you literally get into the weeds. You seek out and document places and things I'd love to spend time exploring. How did this niche develop for you?
It started when I was a kid growing up in Boston, exploring the abandoned tunnels and stations of the Boston subway. After college and during graduate school I worked for the Historic American Engineering Record, an agency within the National Park Service that documents historic industrial sites around the country. For several months at a time, I would live in remote towns and produce measured drawings of old bridges, power plants and grain elevators. This rigorous method of investigation, which also involved large-format photography, research and writing, served as the model for my first book and paved the way for a career change from arch
itecture to photography.
What of all your projects has been the most illuminating? Challenging?
Asylum [below] opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about and continues to exert a strong emotional pull. Since the book was published in 2009, former patients, employees and their relatives have reached out to thank me for telling this story. As historic hospitals continue to be demolished, I yearn to take pictures again, feeling as if I haven’t done enough. I will probably be working on Asylum, in some form or another, for the rest of my life.
The New York Times Printing Plant was by far the most challenging place I’ve ever photographed. It was vast, chaotic and visually overwhelming. The hallways of the facility were lined with vintage black-and-white photos of the original 43rd St. plant in Times Square, circa 1950. I was inspired by these images but frustrated because I knew I could never recreate the days of hot type and lead plates. If I came away with one or two decent pictures per visit, I was happy, but often I would walk around for hours, only to leave empty-handed.
Asylum makes me feel similar to when I visitined Auschwitz. It is not just various ruins but a living version of hell. Can you tell me about your experience there?
My experience was quite the opposite. I spent hours inside these buildings, working alone and undisturbed. I couldn't help but feel a certain intimacy with them, and a strong sense of guardianship and responsibility as, perhaps, their final documenter. I was also lucky to have veteran employees show me around, many of whom had come from families that had worked at the hospitals for generations. Through their stories the buildings and grounds came alive.
My intention with Asylum was to portray these institutions more objectively, by bringing to light their beautiful architecture, their operation as thriving self-sufficient communities, and the vital role they played in American society for more than a century. Before they became objects of derision, the asylums were sources of great civic pride, built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians, who envisioned the asylums as places of refuge, therapy and healing. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to mental illness has been projected onto these buildings, and as vestiges of a less-enlightened era, they do not elicit the same nostalgia as other historic structures.
I was introduced to your photo essays through General Pencil [above]. What was your "aha" moment there?
The entire project was an “aha” moment because it changed the way I take pictures. Coming from an architectural background where I was used to photographing buildings, I was stymied by the small scale of the pencils and the cramped factory interior. By overpowering the ambient light with my strobe lights, I was able to eliminate the background to create dramatic scenes focused entirely on the pencils. Using light in this way, to obscure rather than just illuminate, is a fairly common photographic tool, but in my case I had to be taken out of my comfort zone to realize its potential.
I recall when I was very young, walking through the old Smallpox Hospital ruin off the East River—I always wanted to see and therefore imagined what it must have been like when it was in service. Do you have these thoughts?
Yes, all the time! I think we’re fascinated by ruins like the Smallpox Hospital and North Brother Island because nothing like them exists now, and they evoke a bygone era when vast resources were invested in public health and infrastructure. Over time medical advances rendered quarantine hospitals like North Brother obsolete, and today the idea of a self-contained island community in the middle of New York City seems crazy, unless of course it’s for luxury housing.
With Substations [above] it seems like you've returned in time (and place) to the Industrial Revolution. Did that sensation occur to you too?
In 1997, when I first peered inside one of the old transit substations, I couldn’t believe my eyes. While the world outside had changed, the inside of this building had remained frozen in time. It was a working museum, with vintage equipment that had been supplying power to the subway’s third rail for almost 90 years. Bare incandescent bulbs cast a warm glow that made the space feel even more removed from the present day. I was lucky to catch the tail end of this antiquated technology; by 1999 the last original substation was shut down and today only vestiges remain scattered around the city—the shell of a building here, a piece of machinery there.
What are some of your wish list locales, perhaps more modern manufacturing like the ballot printing fasciliies [below]?
In 2021 I hope to resume work on my upcoming book on American manufacturing. On my list are train locomotives in Texas, tires in Kansas, John Deere tractors in Iowa, submarines in Connecticut, and Tesla in California. What I know I’ll wish for most, at any of these factories, is more time!