Photographing Mental Asylums and Textile Factories - Design Bureau

Photographing Mental Asylums and Textile Factories

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

By Delia Cai

Predictable: New York City photographer Christopher Payne has a thing for design.

Not so predictable: he’s indulging that affair with visits to asylums and textile factories.

Originally trained as an architect, Payne documents historic buildings, industrial architecture, and anything “purposefully designed and constructed” with his large format view camera. For seven years, he explored state mental institutions and published Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals in 2009. Then, inspired by the self sustaining asylums’ clothing workshops, Payne set his sights on textile factories in his next efforts to bring the forgotten and overlooked back into America’s line of vision. How's that going? We checked in with Payne to see.

Asylums and factories? How did you find these places?
The state hospitals were easy to locate because most were still in use and well documented online. Determining which hospitals were worth visiting, however, was a different story, because the intangible qualities that make for a great picture are difficult to convey in an email or phone conversation. The textile mills have been harder to find because they are not as culturally and physically conspicuous as the hospitals. My search has been piecemeal and sometimes serendipitous, relying heavily on recommendations of textile workers and mill owners.

How much time would you spend at each location?
I usually make several visits, spread out over months, or years, to take advantage of the changing seasonal light and foliage. Before I set up my equipment, I spend hours just walking around and thinking about the shots I want to take. Sometimes the pictures are effortless, requiring little requiring little more than being at the right place at the right time, while other times they evolve slowly in my mind before I find them in real life.

Greatest challenges?
Access has never been a problem, and I’ve always received permission to take pictures. That said, the greatest challenge has been staying motivated and focused, like when I drove 1500 miles to Iowa to get one shot.

Did any one place stick out to you?
Most recently, I would have to say the silk mill in Lonaconing, Maryland. The factory closed unexpectedly in 1957 and remains preserved, like a time capsule, to this day. The workers left one Friday and never returned, leaving many of their personal belongings. The rows of machines are still there, and standing in the vast timber-framed hall filled with soft natural light, one can easily imagine the place in full operation. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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