North Brother Island has been closed to the public since 1963. Christopher Payne, an architectural photographer, did the extraordinary; he managed gain access to North Brother. He made a deal with the NYC Parks Department. Payne had a boat; the Parks Dept. did not. If Payne would ferry Parks Dept. workers to North Brother, the City would allow Payne admission. It was a win win for Payne. The result of this access is Payne’s latest book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City and the subject of his talk at the Museum of the City of New York last night.
Beginning in the 1880’s, North Brother Island was developed to quarantine people with communicable diseases. Hospitals were built, gardens, sidewalks, roads, even tennis courts. The island was a self-contained and self-sufficient community. In the 1940’s, the island housed WWII veterans going to school on the “mainland.” Its last re-purposing was in the 1950’s as a drug rehabilitation center for teens. In 1963 the island was abandoned. Over the years, intrepid individuals have kayaked over to North Brother. Payne began his photographic project by researching the many transformations of North Brother.
“The immediate sensation of being alone.” is how Payne described his first experience on the island. Payne was overwhelmed by the discovery of a lost city, by the decaying structures providing lessons in how buildings fall apart, but most of all how nature asserts itself. North Brother is consumed by vegetation. The remaining “buildings” are shells of their former selves, the sidewalks, the lampposts, fire hydrants and roadways have almost entirely disappeared.
I work 3.2 miles from North Brother Island and can see parts of North Brother from the tip of Randall’s Island. When Payne described the feeling of being in the city and yet feeling very much apart from it; I understood what he was saying. I have that sense everyday on Randalls. Listening to Payne’s narrative about his project on North Brother is why I attended the talk; my takeaway was something completely different.
Payne was asked about what kind of camera he used. “A 4 x 5, large format camera that landscape photographers have been using since the advent of photography”. He talked about why a large format camera, that uses film, takes time to set up, sometimes involves long exposures and requires waiting for the light to be just right is his camera of choice. “It’s a meditative experience. It’s the clarity and detail of the negative.”
I’ve been thinking about this exact same thing. I love the iphone camera… the ease, the instant gratification, the manipulation. In spite of all that, I feel I am missing something. I’ve been given a Graflex, which was the camera Stieglitz used. It takes a 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 sheet of film. These days the film must be special ordered. There isn’t much call for this film size in our digital world. If I have the patience for this particular kind of meditative experience, you might see some of my photos posted on this blog.
North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City
A Conversation with Christopher Payne & Michael Miscione
Museum of the City of New York
Thursday, March 26, 2015