Twelve scenes froms America's "hidden" industrial world

Pencil production in New Jersey and the fabrication of massive turbines for wind power in North Dakota feature in this roundup of American industrial facilities photographed by Christopher Payne.

Payne has spent the last decade exploring factories in America, ranging from “traditional industries” like wool carders to the production of contemporary technological machines that he says are often “hidden from view”.

His reasons for creating Made in America stem from the lack of awareness of where products come from, and from American manufacturing “making a comeback” after Covid-19.

“Most people I know have never set foot in a factory,” said Payne. “Decades of global outsourcing and a flood of cheap imports have decimated sectors of American manufacturing and hollowed out once-thriving communities.”

“Yet, we still live in a physical world, and we surround ourselves with material things, and many of these things are still made in America. As environmental concerns and the pandemic have become urgent wake-up calls for us to rethink global supply chains, US manufacturing is making a comeback.”

The book includes close-up photography gathered from Payne’s personal exploration and editorial commissions and has an introduction from British author Simon Winchester.

Payne said that he wanted to preserve the legacy of certain industries while showing the continued innovation and skill of workers – many of whom are featured in the photography.

“All of these places share a commitment to craftsmanship and quality that can’t be outsourced,” he said.

“There is, for sure, a certain romance in the idea of making our own goods here in the US, but it is no longer entirely nostalgia; it is also necessity and opportunity.”

Read on for Payne’s commentary on scenes from twelve industrial facilities in the United States:

Purple wool in mill
Wool carders at the S & D Spinning Mill

S & D Spinning Mill, Millbury, Massachusetts

“In 2010 I discovered an old yarn mill in Maine that reminded me of the state hospital workshops that I photographed for my book Asylum. While most such places had long been abandoned, this mill was fully operational, a scene from the past miraculously coexisting with the present.”

“I learned of other mills around New England, remnants of a once-dominant industry that had moved south long ago, and then overseas, in search of cheap labor. I befriended mill owners, who, in addition to opening their doors, would inform me of a colorful production run, an invaluable tip that transformed a drab, monochromatic scene into something photogenic and magical.”

pencils in factory
A tipping machine adds metal ferrules and erasers to pencils

 General Pencil Company, Jersey City, New Jersey

“General Pencil is one of two remaining pencil companies in the US, and it took five years to win the trust of the owners and gain access to the factory.”

“I focused on essential steps in the manufacturing process to reveal a fresh look at this humble, everyday object.”

Wafers being sorted in industrial facilitiy
Wafer (a thin slice of semiconductor material used to make microchips) sorter

Global Foundries, Malta, New York

“There is a familiarity to traditionally made objects like pianos and pencils that makes them easier to photograph than tiny microchips [featured above] or complex, one-of-a-kind spacecraft; they’re recognizable in all stages of production and we know exactly what they do.”

“Whenever possible, I try to include people in my pictures to humanize a subject that might otherwise seem incomprehensible.”

assembly of jet engine core
Vertical assembly of a CFM LEAP jet engine core

GE Aerospace, Lafayette, Indiana

“From the window of a plane, it is impossible to appreciate the size and complexity of a jet engine.”

“Seen up close and uncovered, it becomes an intricate, dazzling work of art, the perfect balance of form and function.”

Inspection of low pressure steam turbine rotor,
Inspection of a low-pressure steam turbine rotor

GE Gas Power, Schenectady, New York

“Gaining access to modern factories is never easy. There are concerns about safety and intellectual property that didn’t exist in the 1940s and 50s, when American companies spent lavishly on annual reports and were eager to pull back the curtain for popular magazines like LIFE and Fortune.”

“Sometimes I’ll make a beautiful picture only to find out later that I can’t use it, prompting me to look elsewhere for a replacement, like this one, which was my second – and successful attempt – at photographing a turbine rotor.”

A skilled technician tracing a part template for optimized glass utilization on a boule of Corning HPFS Fused Silica.
A technician tracing a part template for optimized glass utilization on a boule of Corning HPFS fused silica

Corning Inc, Canton, New York

“Glass is an ancient material continually being pushed to new limits, but it is not easily photographed. It’s transparent, reflective, and often quite thin and fragile.”

“Finding this technician hovering over a massive circle of glass, lit up like an ice sculpture, was something I had never seen before, and it remains one of my favorite pictures.”

An R1 vehicle hood in the closures area of the body shop.
An R1 vehicle hood in the closures area of the body shop

Rivian, Normal, Illinois

“Car factories are so vast that a golf cart is needed to get around. The environment is visually overwhelming and everything beckons the camera.”

“I never have enough time to show even a fraction of the production process so I search for quiet, simple moments that serve as stand-ins for the larger story.”

Workers weld parts to the steel frame of an electric public transit bus
Workers weld parts to the steel frame of an electric public transit bus

Build Your Dreams (BYD) factory, Lancaster, California

“I approach industrial subjects and busy, cluttered factories the same way I do buildings: I try to find an underlying order within the visual chaos.”

“Here, I was able to use the bus frame as a geometric backdrop upon which the action could unfold, like a stage set.”

Gathering yarn to be fed into a carpet tufter
Gathering yarn to be fed into a carpet tufter

Interface, LaGrange, Georgia

“New technologies are often integrated seamlessly into everyday products in ways that are indiscernible, as is the case here, where captured carbon dioxide will be fused into the backing of a commercial carpet.”

“Even though the product is ‘high tech’, the manufacturing process still requires the deft touch of the human hand.”

Sanding infused fiberglass inside a wind turbine blade shell.
Sanding infused fiberglass inside a wind turbine blade shell

LM Wind Power, Grand Forks, North Dakota

“Clean energy is another booming sector in manufacturing. Wind turbine blades are 200 to 300 feet long (60 to 91 metres), so there’s no elegant way to show their length without including a lot of distracting context.”

“Seen in section, though, the half circle of a blade shell becomes a pleasing composition that fills the frame.”

Inside Stargate, the world’s largest metal 3D printer, while it prints a Terran 1 rocket.
Inside Stargate, the world’s largest metal 3D printer, prints a Terran 1 rocket

Relativity Space, Long Beach, California

“Essential technologies like aerospace have been reenergized by the private sector and new technologies, like 3D printing, and some factories I visited had the buzz of tech startups.”

“Relativity Space 3D prints rocket engines, reducing the time to do so from years to months. To work around the UV light of the laser we had to wear protective gear to avoid a nasty sunburn.”

American flags in production on a rotary screen printer
American flags in production on a rotary screen printer

Annin Flagmakers, South Boston, Virginia

“Even in its unfinished state the American flag is instantly recognizable, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

“I like to think that a factory is similar, a whole that is only complete when everyone works together as a team. These are the people who make the stuff that fuels our economy, and in this time of social polarization and increasing automation, they offer a glimmer of hope.”

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