As a trained architect and photographer, Christopher Payne is known for his interest in the unusual. From behemoth machines in subways to national parks, Payne explores unique perspectives of the American landscape.
Christopher Payne: “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals”
At UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium
Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 p.m.
His interest in photography developed as a result of his architectural work. The images in Payne’s first book, “New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway,” were born from researching necessity, not artistic intention.
“My first book … was originally envisioned as a book of mostly drawings, based on detailed sketches I was making of machines in the substations. I rarely had time to finish sketches on site, so I took pictures to help me complete them later at home,” Payne wrote in an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily.
As his research progressed, however, Payne began to take a more artistic approach in analyzing his subject.
“Over time, these snapshots became more complex, requiring better lighting, equipment and preparation,” Payne added.
Payne will be giving a lecture at University of Michigan Museum of Art this Thursday about his new book, “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals,” which features his six-year study of deserted state mental institutions.
“The main focus of the book and my photographs is to portray these institutions in a more objective light, by making palpable their incredible architecture, their operation as thriving self sufficient communities, and the vital role they once played in American society, for better or worse,” Payne wrote.
When asked why he chose asylums, Payne described his exposure to mental institutions as an opportunity that came by chance.
“A friend, knowing my interest in abandoned buildings and infrastructure, suggested mental hospitals,” Payne wrote. “As fate would have it, the first one I visited was Pilgrim State Hospital, one of the largest in the world, and it made a strong impression on me that day.”
“As methods of treating mental illness improved and people no longer required long-term institutionalization, the asylums outlived their usefulness and were gradually abandoned. Now they are … an obsolete typology (of architecture),” he added.
Though Payne analyzed these abandoned buildings from an architectural point of view, a more personal attachment flourished.
“Over the course of six years, I spent hundreds of hours working alone and undisturbed in these buildings, developing an intimate connection with them and strong sense of proprietorship, as perhaps, their final guardian,” Payne wrote.
“The joy I gained in taking beautiful pictures was always tempered by a profound sense of loss and sadness, for the people who lived in the asylums, and for the buildings that now stand empty and discarded” he added. “Most of the places I visited will be demolished.”
At the lecture, Payne will discuss the aspects of asylums that he discovered in his research.
“My slide lecture will encompass the rise, fall and ultimate demise of asylums and state hospitals,” Payne wrote. “I will present historical images in the beginning, to provide context, and then my contemporary photos, taking the audience on a journey to show what the hospitals once were, and what they have now become.”
As a testament to the wide-reaching influence of Payne’s research, a diverse group of University organizations is sponsoring his visit, including the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Department of English Language and Literature and the Center for the History of Medicine.
Branching off of his subject’s diversity is Payne’s assertion that mental institutions have a clouded history of which not many people are aware.
“In their day, the asylums were the largest buildings around, and they dominated the American landscape,” Payne wrote. “Before they became objects of derision, they were sources of great civic pride, and not many people know this.”
In addition to breaking through the mystery of asylums, Payne also wants his lectures to be considered a call to action, as he believes that these “architectural treasures” should be saved.