Chris Payne traces his current career path back to a summer job for the National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey and Historic American Engineering Record before and during his time as a graduate student in the School of Design. He was part of a team of students, historians, architects, and photographers sent around the country to document industrial structures and buildings.

As an architecture student, Payne drew plans and took measurements, but he soon came to suspect that the photographers had the better deal. “I would slave away on, let’s say, a grain elevator, or power plant, or cast-iron bridge somewhere, doing these drawings, and then a photographer would show up at the end of the project and take these amazing photographs,” he says. “I remember seeing the way these guys shot these structures and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do.’ They were taking something that was very prosaic and kind of overlooked and turning it into art.”

At the same time, the comparatively freewheeling atmosphere of Penn’s architecture program—“I wouldn’t say it was all over the place, but it didn’t have a clear direction like most schools, [where] all the work looks the same,” he says approvingly—helped open him to the possibility that a traditional architecture career might not be the right one for him.

He became interested in architectural lighting and took a job in the field after graduation; still, “I knew it wasn’t quite the right fit.” What he calls his eureka moment arrived a year or so later: “I came across one of these old substations that the transit authority used to power the subway’s third rail, and I peered in and saw this working museum.”

Taking his old work with the Park Service a step further, he decided to create a book about the substations. “I would take measurements and do sketches of the machines,” he says. “I couldn’t finish them while I was there so I took photographs to finish the sketches. Gradually I became more interested in taking the pictures, and it began to remind me of the pictures the photographers would take on that summer job.”

Recognizing Payne’s growing interest, a friend who had offered to contribute photography to the project suggested he do it himself instead. “I started taking pictures and buying equipment, and I got a couple of grants and realized that was really where my passion lived,” he says.

 

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Architecture of Madness by John Prendergast
Photography by Chris Payne GAr’96

Patient toothbrushes, Hudson River State Hospital; ward hallway, Fergus Falls State Hospital.

     
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