Walking America’s Factory Floors with Chris Payne
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
Not too many people’s day jobs put them at the top of a rocket-launch platform on a Tuesday and on the factory floor of America’s oldest hat manufacturer on a Friday. Unless you’re Christopher Payne, an architect-turned-photographer who documents living, breathing industry for outlets like Wired, The Atlantic, and the New York Times.
Payne seeks the heroic in the mundane. “The goal is to show people something that they didn’t think had any beauty,” he humbly shares. Through his lens at General Pencil in New Jersey, the writing instrument gets reduced to its most basic components (graphite, cedar, clay) while elevated to its most essential promises (ingenuity, trust, jobs). Slightly north, at the Steinway & Sons plant, Payne pauses before a row of piano frames stood on end before assembly, capturing a canopy of raw wooden curves. And at Titleist, a New England sporting gear manufacturer, he gives a glimpse of neon golf balls freshly formed in an injection mold, cracked open to show just where they get their dimples.
Payne only shoots American factories. “I’m very moved by the idea of this country being a huge industrial powerhouse,” he remarks, his blue eyes flashing behind tortoise-shell frames. He grew up in Boston, a city whose identity is as steeped in manufacturing as its early history is in tea. While raised by a photographer, Payne didn’t think much of the medium until architecture school, when a surveying gig with the National Park Service demonstrated how a large-format camera could exalt crumbling bridges and dams—those New Deal double-zingers of policy and innovation.
A decade later, when Payne dropped architecture (or “traded a pencil for a camera,” as he quips), such infrastructure became his first subject, leading to books on overlooked substations and abandoned asylums. Many of these buildings no longer stand. “Once you destroy something that was built from that era, you can’t replace it. The craftsmanship isn’t there. The materials aren’t there,” he laments.
Craftsmanship and materiality are what Payne seeks to highlight in his later factory images, too. Many of these photographs explore deliberate art direction and posed portraiture of the workers, revealing his desire to iterate after endless “unphotogenic” spaces with redundant forms. While tedious (a story on the New York Times printing facility took 40 visits), this creative control pays off: Through his dramatic narrative framing, Payne is not eulogizing industry’s past. He is making a vivid case for its future.
Payne’s iconographic shots of proud laborers pick up the legacy of the WPA, which sent photographers into fields and factories to celebrate the gritty heroism of the American worker during the Depression. In his supersaturated, hyperdetailed images of textile factories and their vital craftspeople, Payne also speaks across time to Lewis Hine, whose stark documentation of child mill workers in 1908 provided ammunition in the fight for workers’ rights. Still, after decades of globalization and now the threat of automated labor, Payne remains hopeful about manufacturing’s future—even after shooting Tesla’s robotic assembly line. “Factory workers aren’t going anywhere,” he declares. “There are some things that will always have to be done by hand.”
While the WPA no longer funds the creation of images to suggest our dignity (its mission was “accomplished” in 1943), Payne still enjoys patronage, albeit of a different nature: access to usually impenetrable sites of industry, greased by his collaborations with major media outlets. But everyone’s got a white whale. When asked what gated manufacturer he dreams of photographing, Payne doesn’t hesitate: “That would be Crane, the factory that prints the U.S. dollar.” Crane interweaves the bill’s gray-green fibers with micro-optic, anticounterfeiting technology, a secretive feat that protects the dollar from today’s more sophisticated efforts at subversion. With any luck, though, Payne will be setting up his camera on the Crane factory floor someday soon, capturing a new American currency as it rolls off the line.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.