Christopher Payne Asylum
Exhibition Dates: September 13 - October 8, 2022
The Fine Arts Gallery of the ZMA is pleased to present a selection of photographs
from Christopher Payne’s haunting series, Asylum. From 2002 to 2008, Payne visited seventy institutions in thirty states, photographing
palatial exteriors designed by famous architects and crumbling interiors that appeared
as if the occupants had just left. Additionally, he also documented how these hospitals
functioned as self-contained cities, where almost everything of necessity was produced
on site: food, water, power, and even clothing and shoes. Many of these places have
since been demolished. The photographs from this powerful series serve as the final,
official record of these sites. Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals was published by MIT Press in 2009 and includes an essay by Oliver Sacks.
Payne states, “We tend to think of mental hospitals as “snake pits”—places of nightmarish
squalor and abuse—and this is how they have been portrayed in books and film. Few
Americans, however, realize these institutions were once monuments of civic pride,
built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians, who envisioned the
asylums as places of refuge, therapy, and healing. For more than half the nation's
history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape.
From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, more than 250 institutions
for the insane were built throughout the United States; by 1948 they housed over half
a million patients. But over the next thirty years, with the introduction of psychotropic
drugs and policy shifts toward community-based care, patient populations declined
dramatically, leaving many of these massive buildings neglected and abandoned.”
Christopher Payne specializes in architectural and industrial photography. Trained as an architect,
he is fascinated by design, assembly, and the built form. His first book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, offers rare views of the behemoth machines hidden behind modest facades in New York
City. Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, which includes an essay by Oliver Sacks, is a journey through America’s abandoned
state mental institutions. North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, explores an uninhabited island of ruins in the East River, providing a glimpse into
a city’s future without people.
Payne’s recent work has veered away from the documentation of the obsolete towards
a celebration of American craftsmanship. Making Steinway: An American Workplace, is a tour through the Steinway & Sons piano factory in Astoria, Queens, where skilled
workers create some of the finest musical instruments in the world. Payne captures
moments of the choreographies of production, and inspects the parts and pieces of
the instruments that will never be visible outside of the factory, telling a story
of intricacy, precision, and care he fears is becoming all too rare in the modern
His next book about American manufacturing will be published by Abrams in 2023.