On the Photography of Christopher Payne ‹ Literary Hub


Christopher Payne was en route through Brooklyn on his way to the MTA Overhaul Shop in Coney Island, where they rebuild and maintain subway cars. As he passed storefronts, bodegas, and restaurants, he commented, STEAKS, CHOPS, SEAFOODyou dont see that on the signs for diners anymore. Payne is renowned for his photographs documenting industry in America. When he creates images of things being produced, he feels the urgency of knowing that all manufacturing processes change and disappear over time. He conveys the power and beauty of making things. All sorts of things: Steinway pianos, Whirlpool washing machines, Kohler urinals, Airbus planes, and electric vehicles shuttling down the assembly lines at Ford and Rivian. His focus ranges from traditional processes serving niche markets to ultramodern technologies.

Payne had photographed in the MTA Overhaul Shop several times already. In the cavernous skylighted space, he had the swagger of someone who understands the work done there, which won the respect of the workers. They knew from previous shoots the exactitude and precisionthe eccentricityhe exhibits when composing a photograph. In his steel-toed boots and hard hat, Payne stalked the aisles lined with trains like a museum curator searching for treasures to put on display. Today his mind was set on a forty-ton subway car. He wanted to document the moment when the train is hoisted into the air to facilitate work on its undercarriage. Payne envisioned a moment when the elevated car would align with the car behind it in a way that would be deeply satisfying. This moment of geometric and compositional sublimity had eluded him so far. He is a perfectionist.

There is nothing loose or improvisatory about Paynes work. As we entered the shop that morning, he said, Were going to get medical with thislike, surgical. He will return to the same location five or even ten times in pursuit of an imagethat is escaping him or to redo an image he thinks he can do better. Thats what he was up to this day in Brooklyn. He set up his tripod and, as he was shooting, he directed the men moving the car into position to lift it a few inches higher here or drop it a few inches there. They endured several rounds of his requests because, as much as he admires the tremendous skill they bring to their labors, they seemed to admire the obsessive, sometimes baffling perfectionism he brings to his art. At one point, as he kept honing the exact composition he wanted, he said, I dont know if I am chasing something that is unattainable.

The biggest challenge Payne faces is an unusual one for an artist. He is obsessed with process.

I first met Payne when Bonni Benrubi, his gallerist at the time, showed me his stunning photographs from the Steinway factory in the spring of 2012. We published those images in the New York Times Magazine, where I have been the director of photography since 1987. Since then, I have enjoyed working with Payne on numerous projects. We commission him because of his singular ability to make gloriously monumental photos that illuminate what he refers to as the grandeur and sublimity of industrial processes.

Three of the most memorable photo essays weve publishedthe textile mills, the pencil factory, and even the New York Times printing plantwere self-assigned art projects that Payne either brought to us after they were complete or asked us for help with to gain access to a facility; he had no promise of publication upon their completion. Payne, who sold newspapers in Boston when he was a teenager, desperately wanted to shoot inside the massive Times printing plant in College Point, Queens. After we granted him access, he visited the plant more than thirty times, often into the wee hours of the morning, to get the best images of the presses running and the press operators at work. Sometimes he came away empty- handed if things didnt align visually in the way he hoped they would. This deep engagement with his personal projects gives him the granular knowledge of the manufacturing process he needs to make the formally beautiful and informationally meaningful images he seeks.

Changing New York photos from the 1930s do today. They will serve as historic records.

To succeed, photographers need to be opinionated. Paynes photographs declare with clarity and passion his belief that American manufacturing is to be treasured and valued and the workers respected and honored with our attention. The hard labor of these workers has been documented by one of the finest documentary artists of our time. This book should be the topping-out ceremony that occurs when the highest feature on a tall building is attached to celebrate the end of construction. After all the work Payne has done in magnificently rendering the toil of the workers and the beauty of industrial processes, he should be able to step back to survey the breadth of his achievement, but as I write this essay, I know he is still trying to gain access to places he hasnt been able to get into yeta jet engine test site, a high-tech pharmaceutical lab, and a space capsule he has been dreaming about. There is always something more to photograph.


Excerpted from Made in America: The Industrial Photography of Christopher Payne. Foreword by Kathy Ryan Copyright (c) 2023 Abrams Books. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Kathy Ryan

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