Disappearing Histories: A Conversation with Christopher Payne

Christopher Payne is a photographer fascinated by production, creation, construction and function. Trained as an architect, Payne identified his appreciation of built form and curiosity about how things work long before he discovered his aptitude for taking photographs. His early work focuses on industrial processes and purpose-built spaces that have fallen into oblivion. New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway captures a record of the enormous machines that used to power the New York City subway system and the spaces that housed them shortly before they were rendered obsolete and dismantled. Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals documented seventy of these institutions in thirty states, expansive campuses with stately buildings and lavish grounds that, due to shifting philosophies and practices in the care of the mentally ill, now sit empty, neglected and crumbling. His recent work, including a series in progress on the American textile industry, has veered away from the documentation of the obsolete and towards a celebration of craftsmanship and small-scale manufacturing that are persevering in the face of global competition and evolutions in industrial processes.

Payne is currently at work on two projects in New York City. North Brother Island: The Last Unkown Place in New York City explores an abandoned island in the East River, situated between the Bronx waterfront and Rikers Island. North Brother has lain unused for less than 50 years, but its buildings, left to the elements, have deteriorated rapidly. Payne’s photographs invoke the former grandeur of the site, capturing hints of erstwhile streets and infrastructure now reclaimed by nature, while also offering a rare image of a city abandoned, something usually left to the imaginations of film and television set designers. Steinway & Sons Piano Factory offers a glimpse inside One Steinway Place in Astoria, Queens, where a team of skilled workers create exquisite instruments considered to be some of the finest in the world. Payne captures moments of the choreographies of production and assembly, 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 American workplace. Payne recently sat down with Urban Omnibus to talk about his work, the intersections between his architectural background and artistic practice, and the role photography can play in reminding us of our disappearing histories. –V.S.

Coal House, North Brother Island, New York City
Varick Shute (VS):

What do you do?

Christopher Payne (CP):

I am a photographer, and I’m trained as an architect. I shoot the built environment — architecture, buildings, landscapes, and how spaces are used (or not used) over time. I’m particularly interested in how things work, how they’re designed, how they’re constructed. That can be a building, or a community, or a machine.

In architecture school you’re taught how to convey an idea effectively on a two-dimensional surface so that it’s immediately recognizable and understandable. I’m trying to do that with my photography so that each photograph contains a story within itself but is also part of a larger series of photographs — like the way a single drawing is part of a larger drawing set. I’ve just traded one medium for another.


For a while you were a practicing architect as well, is that right?


Yes, I actually started out doing lighting design for Fisher Marantz. The notion of shaping a space and one’s moods and emotions through lighting appealed to me. Then I moved on to work at Weiss/Manfredi. All along I felt a little like a fish out of water. I was just as passionate about architecture and design as everyone else, but I just couldn’t see myself working in an office twenty or thirty years from now. There was something about the passion and energy one has in school, where you’re working on an idea that is truly your own, that gets lost in the real world. I wanted to retain that, and found I could through photography.


How did you transition into photography? Had taking pictures been a hobby?


I had been around photography my whole life — my father was an amateur photographer — but I didn’t really “get it” until I worked for the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey and Historic American Engineering Record program (HABS/HAER) in between college and grad school. They send out teams of students every summer all around the country to document important industrial sites through drawing and photography. I remember slaving away on sketches and measurements for months, creating these intricate ink-on-mylar drawings, and then a photographer would show up and take an incredible picture of the same thing. These guys would walk away with something that, to me, was more beautiful than what I was trying to get down on paper, and it seemed a lot easier. They turned what I was working on into something else, into art. It was in those moments that I started to think about other ways I could express myself within the realm of architecture.

IRT Substation #14, 96th Street, Manhattan (L: Rotary Converter, R: Exterior)
IND Greenwich Substation, Greenwich Avenue, Manhattan
Switchboard, IRT Substation #11, Manhattan

My first book — New York’s Forgotten Substations, which documented the machinery that used to power the city’s subways, and the buildings that housed them — was originally intended to be a book of drawings, historic photos, and diagrams, in the tradition of the HABS/HAER format. I found myself taking pictures of the machines because I could never finish my sketches onsite, and gradually these photographs became more and more involved. Then I realized I was enjoying taking the photographs more than doing the sketches. Those substations were my photography school. I would lock myself inside, and experiment with lighting and composition.


What inspired you to do the substations project in the first place?


I had just moved back to New York, and I was missing that strong sense of ownership over a project that I had with the HABS/HAER projects. In those, you immerse yourself in a site for months — maybe a grain elevator in Buffalo, cast- or wrought-iron bridges in Massachusetts, a hydro-electric power plant in Alabama — and at the end of it you feel like what you’ve produced is yours, in a way. I needed that again.

One day I was walking down a street in Brooklyn and the gates of an old building were open. I looked inside and I saw this time capsule. I just wanted to know more about it, and about all the other subway power stations in the city. Fortunately, I met the right person, and he got me access to the space so I could go sketch. At some point I realized these drawings could be a book.

Typical Ward, Kankakee State Hospital, Kankakee, IL
Corn Crib, Eastern Kentucky State Hospital, Lexington, KY

What other projects have you gone on to do?


Substations was about the documentation of an obsolete and disappearing building typology — reminiscent of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work. In a way, Asylum was the same thing, just with vast state mental hospitals. Those buildings were designed for a specific purpose, and they’re now obsolete, both in their physical design and the role that they play in society.

Out of the Asylum project I developed an interest in manufacturing. The hospital complexes were meant to be self-sufficient, so making things was a significant component of daily life. That spoke to me, because it’s something we don’t really see nowadays. We tend not to know where the things we consume come from. But go to these state hospitals, and there’s the dairy farm, there’s the farm, there’s where they made the shoes and clothes, and that’s the power plant and that’s the sewage treatment plant. It was all right there. And thinking about how the patients made all of these things helped shed a better light on the institutions. So my current projects — one that looks at the craftsmanship and processes inside the walls of the Steinway & Sons Piano Factory in Astoria, and one that explores the textile industry in the U.S. — are looking at things happening now, that are being made now. The buildings or processes might be old, but they’re not obsolete.

The Textiles project is evolving and changing. It’s just my attempt to look at what’s still going on, what textiles are still being made in this country, anything from yarn to certain fabrics, carpets, apparel. It’s a huge industry and it involves almost everything that comes into contact with our skin. I started with some older mills in the New England area, but there are a lot of modern applications that I haven’t even scratched the surface of yet.

Tuberculosis Pavilion (Winter), North Brother Island, New York City
Tuberculosis Pavilion (Summer), North Brother Island, New York City

You’ve also been working on a project that hovers somewhere in between all of these. The Substations and Asylum projects looked at buildings that were built for a particular purpose and were difficult to reuse due to their scale and their spatial idiosyncrasies. The Steinway and Textiles projects look at the role of manufacturing and craft in the face of changing technological and economic environments that threaten decline or obsolescence. But your series of photographs of New York City’s North Brother Island looks at a place that was a thriving part of the city, and which saw a number of attempts at reuse, but nonetheless has been completely abandoned as a site of human habitation.


North Brother Island, which sits in the East River in between the Bronx and Rikers Island, was first a site of a hospital complex where people with infectious diseases could be isolated and treated. After the hospital closed, much of the campus was turned into residences for veterans returning from World War II. In the 1950s, the hospital’s huge tuberculosis pavilion became a drug rehab center for juveniles, but the facility was closed in 1964 after allegations of abuse and mismanagement. The structures have been abandoned ever since. Now, the buildings are in ruins and the island is a nature preserve for the Black Heron, so it is closed to the public.

There’s a book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman that imagines what would happen to the planet if humans disappeared. He dedicates a chapter to New York City that might as well be captions for these photos. The series isn’t just about the abandoned buildings, it is about the universal story of man’s attempts to live in and alter the natural world, and how nature always reasserts herself in the end.

There is a sense of futility when you go to a place like North Brother, because the natural overgrowth is out of control. Architects are taught to think about how buildings will age, but we never think how they will fall apart. People assume it takes centuries. But on North Brother Island, that jump from human habitation to unrecognizable ruin is just a few decades.

North Brother Island in its prime. Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives.

When you see historic photographs of North Brother, you see this huge, open, well-maintained campus. This was not just a cluster of buildings in a wooded landscape. But we don’t think about the parts we can’t see, buried just beneath our feet — the streets, the fire hydrants, the lampposts. And this is an island that used to be very much connected to the city. There were ferries running back and forth, for people who worked at the hospital, or for the families that lived there after WWII. We’re looking at things that had so much meaning just fifty years ago, and now, even in a city as big as this, no one remembers them except maybe one or two people who actually went to school there, who were on the island when it was an active community.

Church, North Brother Island, New York City
Church (side), North Brother Island, New York City
The ‘Street’ with Nurse’s Home, North Brother Island, New York City
South Beach, North Brother Island, New York City

And now the island is off the map. I can imagine that plenty of people don’t even know it exists.


All it takes is one generation for that kind of public knowledge to be lost. We assume history will be remembered, but that’s not always the case. I think photographers are acutely aware of that.

I remember when I worked after grad school in Turkey on an archeology dig at Aphrodisias, I just couldn’t get over how a city could be left behind, forgotten, and covered by a few feet of earth. In New York, where every little piece of property is continually rebuilt and repurposed, it’s not something that we’re accustomed to. And yet it’s happening on North Brother before our very eyes. Whether the site is fifty years old or two thousand years old, it’s all really the same.


Tell me about the motivation behind these projects. Do you see your photographs as a form of preservation in the face of the impossibility of actual physical preservation? Or as a way to encourage the reuse of these spaces by heightening awareness about their existence and conditions?


Well, the sense of discovery is appealing, of finding something others haven’t photographed before. And there is a sense of urgency. For example, when I was photographing the substations, which seemed so permanent, I would return to a site and find guys with blowtorches cutting through these big rotary converters like butter. It was a very sad experience, but it helped me realize that I’m not just trying to make beautiful pictures; this really is a record. It’s a record of these buildings, what happened inside them, and it’s also a record of my life. But I wouldn’t do it unless I felt a deep kinship and fascination and love of the subject.

L: Skeiner detail, Bartlett Yarn, Harmony, ME | R: Eduarda at the die cutting press, New England Shirt Co., Fall River, MA
Circular Knitting Machines, Northeast Knitting Mill, Fall River, MA
Carder, Bartlett Yarn, Harmony, ME
Cut order room, Langhorne Carpet, Penndel, PA
Spools on beaming creel, Langhorne Carpet, Penndel, PA

Does a similar preservationist impulse feed your interest in documenting the shrinking or declining industrial processes — the textile mills, the craftsmanship of the piano factory — that you’re working on now?


It does. I am very interested in craft, in things that are well-made and built to last. But the notion of craftsmanship can have a wide definition. Is craftsmanship something that’s completely handmade? Or is it a person operating a machine? Craftsmanship doesn’t have to belong to one person. It can be the whole process taking place inside a building.

I entered into the textiles project because it was an opportunity to look at an industry that helped define this country and to see how it is changing today. There are new kinds of fabrics and textiles being made, ones that we don’t really think of as textiles. This series is very much about the present, with a nod to the past. In the other projects I was focused on a way of life that is over. Now I’m meeting people who are carrying on a tradition. But I’m asking myself what exactly they are carrying on and what kind of future does it have? It’s not always about showing the machines. I want to photograph the people as well.

Rim conditioning room, Steinway & Sons Piano Factory, Astoria, NY
Rim bending, Steinway & Sons Piano Factory, Astoria, NY

Do you see clear commonalities between all of your projects, or do you feel like the Steinway project and the Textiles project mark a new direction for you?


Everything goes back to my interest in how things work. With the asylums, I traveled all over the country to find these disparate parts, and then tried to reassemble them into a whole, into a narrative that was understandable. With the Steinway Piano Factory project, I wanted to deconstruct something familiar into its essential parts. We all know what a piano looks like, how it is shaped. But we don’t know what’s inside and how it gets to be that way.

There are a lot other things that I have thought about photographing over the years. I have files full of ideas that for some reasons just didn’t click. I now realize why — there was no story to tell about how they worked. It was too superficial, it was just a pretty picture. I want to understand something by getting underneath the surface. I want to reconstruct or deconstruct it.


Do you have anything on your list that is clicking right now? That you’re hoping to do once you’re done with your current projects?


I do. I have an idea for a project that will start with traditional building materials and where they come from. Slate quarries up in Vermont, a brick factory in Massachusetts which still makes bricks in molds, limestone in Indiana. It’s about tracing our buildings back to their roots.

Polyester spray booth, Steinway & Sons Piano Factory, Astoria, NY
Belly Department, Steinway & Sons Piano Factory, Astoria, NY

What lessons do you think can be learned from your photographs? What message do you want your audience — whether the architectural community, or a broader public — to come away with?


First and foremost I hope that people see the buildings as places that are worth saving and not destroying. I’m a strong proponent of preservation and reuse. I just feel like it makes sense. You’re honoring the past and you’re creating something for the future. Yes, I want to make something that I’m happy with and that I feel tells a story in an artistic way, but there has to be some social purpose to the work too. There’s value in being able to go somewhere that other people can’t access, and to take that information and disseminate it for people to look at and reconsider.

Most of the time I feel like a voyeur, and sometimes there’s a sense of guilt when I leave. I gain access to these places, and I get to take a picture and then leave. In some respect, the building and the people perform for you, and then you leave the building and the people behind. But you hope that sharing the work plants a seed somehow, even if you don’t know what will come out of it.

Danvers State Hospital, Danvers, MA

Chris Payne (b. 1968), a photographer based in New York City, specializes in the documentation of America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape. Trained as an architect, he has a natural interest in how things are purposefully designed and constructed, and how they work. His first book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), offered dramatic, rare views of the behemoth machines that are hidden behind modest facades in New York City. His latest book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals (MIT Press, 2009), which includes an essay by the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, is the result of a seven-year exploration of America’s vast and largely abandoned state mental institutions. For more information about his work, visit chrispaynephoto.com.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Louise Harpman October 4, 2012

Truly a stunning portfolio of images.
I saw the Steinway photos in a gallery. Are the North Brother Island photos in a gallery, too?