Christopher Payne specializes in the documentation of America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape. Trained as an architect, he is fascinated by how things are purposefully designed and constructed, and how they work. His first book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, offered dramatic, rare views of the behemoth machines that are hidden behind modest facades in New York City. His second book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, which includes an essay by the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, was the result of a seven-year survey of America’s vast and largely shuttered state mental institutions. Payne’s forthcoming book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, explores an uninhabited island of ruins in the East River. Payne’s photographs invoke the former grandeur of the site over different seasons, capturing hints of buried streets and infrastructure now reclaimed by nature, while also offering a unique glimpse into a city’s future without people.
Payne’s recent work, including a series in progress on the American textile industry, has veered away from the documentation of the obsolete towards a celebration of craftsmanship and small-scale manufacturing that are persevering in the face of global competition and evolutions in industrial processes. Nearing completion is One Steinway Place, a tour through the famous Steinway & Sons piano factory in Astoria, Queens. Here a team of skilled workers creates 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.