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In Photos, Christopher Payne Uncovers Disappearing Places

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger talks to photographer Christopher Payne, whose most recent book explores North Brother Island.


[New York-based photographer Christopher Payne's newest book "North Brother Island" is part of his series of projects documenting endangered historic structures. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Over the past 15 years, Christopher Payne has tirelessly documented the disappearing industrial and architectural history of New York and New England, photographing endangered substations, half-empty asylums, crumbling hospital ruins, and some of the last 19th century textile manufacturers in the United States. His latest book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, was released this month, and like his earlier books, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals and New York's Forgotten Substations, it creates an invaluable historical record of buildings that will soon vanish. The ruins of North Brother Island, located in the East River, are slowly collapsing after years of abandonment. "The substations are not going to be saved. The hospitals are being torn down," said Payne. "There is just so much that is gone."

On a recent visit to the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in Midtown Manhattan, which represents Payne's work, the photographer reflected on his growing collection of images. In a single box of prints, hundreds of memories and thousands of hours of work were collected, including several projects nearing completion. Payne is now at a crossroads, deciding what might come next. "I think probably everybody goes through this, but as things get torn down and converted and modernized, you start running out of things to shoot," he said. "Things are in such flux now. I think when you are younger, things seem to be more permanent, because you haven't experienced much change. And then things start moving faster."

Payne is now 45, and has lived in New York since 1996. He grew up in Boston, and traces some of his inspiration to his childhood there. "If you are used to being in a city on the water, whose industry is based on water transport," he said, "it's like a subconscious need, where you need that point of reference." For many years, he lived near the water in Brooklyn, exploring the industrial waterfront of Red Hook and Cobble Hill. He now lives in Inwood, within walking distance of the Hudson River. Manhattan is currently the home base for his explorations across New England, as he works to complete his latest project about the fading textile manufacturing industry. "A lot of these factories are still there, you just have to dig deeper, you have to get access. But once you get in, there is this whole other world," said Payne, who will sometimes drive for hours just to take a single photo inside a factory. "Going to these mills is just trying to come to terms with what's happened in this country and get it down visually."

Like the textile series, which he began shooting in 2010, all of Payne's projects take years to complete. His photographs are meticulously composed and shot on a large format camera after hours of preparation. He spends months and even years carefully planning out his next image. With his North Brother project, he estimates that he visited the island nearly 30 times over the course of five years, but shot only a few hundred photographs. "I probably took 100 that I liked," said Payne. "I think 80 made it into the book." That careful preparation is nothing compared to his most recently completed project, a portrait of the Steinway & Sons piano factory in Queens. "I toured the factory in 2002, and I saw this shot and I thought about it for like eight years," said Payne. "And when you think about something for 8 years, you know that you need to do something about it." Documenting the piano-making process took four years, and Payne finished the project last month. When published, it will be his fourth book.

Chris Payne examines one of the photos from his North Brother Island project. "That was the most colorful room. A room full of books. And I spent several hours uncovering the books. The top ones were the ones that are kind of gray. Over time they had all gotten washed out. But underneath, there was still color, so I had to bring those up.

An exterior photo of one of the island's crumbling ruins. "This one, we were lucky, we timed it right after a snowstorm," said Payne. "I literally had to just set up my camera and level it, and wherever I pointed it was awesome. When snow covers something, you've got to be an idiot to mess the shot up."

A striking image of the cemetery of the Connecticut Valley State Hospital, from Payne's second book, Asylum, which was published in 2009. "Shooting the asylums, that was like seven years. And the biggest thing that appealed to me about the asylums was this idea of self sufficiency and that you have these communities making everything they needed on site."

One of Payne's favorite images from the asylum project is of an autopsy theater. "The building was still in use, it was a laboratory building, so they still used the top floors, and they just didn't use the theater anymore. And the guard, it was amazing, because he is showing me around the campus, and the hospital is still in use, but these areas are abandoned, locked up," said Payne. "And he opens these swinging doors and it was like boom."

An image from Payne's first book New York's Forgotten Substations, which was published in 2002. "That was five years. I started that in 1997 and I just started with sketches," said Payne. "My way of understanding something at that time was through drawings, you know sketching it, taking it apart, doing these exploded isometrics and whatnot. And gradually I got into photography and the last two years were spent taking pictures."
 

An architect by training, Payne began documenting industrial sites while working with the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey and Historic American Engineering Record program. For his substations series, he was given almost unlimited access to the city's substations, including his own set of skeleton keys.

Payne's next book will be on the Steinway piano factory. "I think underlying everything is an interest in how things work and how they're constructed, whether it's a machine, a factory, or a community.  And there's always that component of history to it, where it's tied to some larger story."

"I thought about this view and looking through here for 8 years, and when I got in in 2010, that's what kept nagging at me," said Payne. "In fact, this shot is no longer possible because they've now incorporated these braces that they put inside the rims after they bend them. So this view doesn't exist."

The Steinway project was the first time Payne began photographing portraits of workers.  This image shows a worker polishing polyester paint on a piano.

A portrait of a worker at the S&D Spinning Mill in Millbury, Massachusetts, from Payne's current project on textile manufacturers. "Her mom works at the same mill. Her grandmother works at the same mill. And you begin to meet people who have this connection all the way back to the 19th century. I can't tell you how many people I've met who have worked at the same mill for 50 years."

"I have a version of this in orange. The mill owner called me and said we are running pink wool today through the carters. If you want to get a shot with color in it, this is the day," said Payne, who drove three and a half hours to get this shot.

"Manufacturing has suffered such huge losses in this country, and the textile industry has suffered more than any other industry," said Payne, who views the textile project as part of his long term efforts to "bring what's hidden to light, before it is gone."

Christopher Payne is hosting a talk and book signing next Friday, May 16th at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in Manhattan.
· Exploring the East River's Lush, Lonely North Brother Island [Curbed NY]
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]