Crozet Calendar Clinic: John Payne

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John Payne’s photograph, “The Wanderer,” is featured in the 2021 Crozet calendar.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

And now for something arresting and entirely different—an image of images.

It is the work of Albemarle artist and photographer John Payne, whose detailed description of his process gives us a glimpse into the creation of this unique “photograph of photographs.”

“The day I went out to shoot this mosaic of the woods Alex, our daughter, and her cat Toast came with me. As I was lining up all the frames with my Hasselblad camera Toast kept skittering around in front of me and playing in the leaves and pine needles. Alex said, “I’m so sorry, Dad, let me try to catch him and keep him out of your photo.” I said, “No, he’s fine. Just let him have fun.

“Just as I was about to shoot frame #7, Toast jumped up on the fallen tree. I had only one chance, one frame to try and catch him. It worked out perfectly. Complete serendipity. Looking at the finished mosaic, at first you don’t even notice him. It’s kind of like Where’s Waldo?, or rather, Where’s Toast? That’s what I love about making art. Sometimes you never know what you’re to going to come up with in the end.

“I’ve been experimenting with mosaics for some time. I shoot an entire roll of 120 film in a specific order so that when the developed film is cut into strips and laid out it forms one large, coherent image. 

“I practice lining up each frame ahead of time and look carefully at where one frame ends and the next begins, both up and down and left to right. I try to be precise but not necessarily exact. I like the fact that not everything always lines up perfectly. Some mosaics I make are more disjointed than others. It depends on the subject. I don’t think these mosaics can be created digitally and still retain the “hand-made” quality.

“I also like including the edge markings of the film. I think it accentuates the authenticity of the process. A lot of pre-visualization and planning is required for the effect to work.

 “I have always admired the spare, graphic look of black and white and utilize it whenever possible. It has a certain purity and timelessness. Sometimes color gets in the way of the idea being expressed and becomes the subject in and of itself. Even while using my digital camera, I pre-visualize many photographs to be black and white. Because of the massive storage capabilities of current data cards, it is very easy and tempting to just capture hundreds of frames in a day. But I have always worked much slower and more deliberately. Even though I now have essentially unlimited space, the bulk of my life has been spent shooting film with its relative scarcity of frames. It’s a mindset that I think makes my shooting more focused, so to speak.”

I asked John about how the evolution of his career brought him to creating such unique work. He calls his beginning in photography “about as cliched as possible”. (That may be true. It’s the same start I had.)

“At around age 10, my father gave me a Brownie-type camera. I enjoyed it from the beginning. A couple of years later he loaned me one of his 35mm Leicas (he was a serious amateur). In high school I saved up my money and bought a Nikon SLR.

“I majored in filmmaking and photography communications at Ithaca College. After graduating I went to work in a fashion and still life studio in Manhattan. This was the late 1970s and early 80s and it was an exciting time to be in photography in New York. The fashion side of the studio was exactly as you would picture it from the movies. Loud thumping music, all kinds of people milling around, thick smoke (cigarette and otherwise), uninhibited young models. The still life side was very different: dark, quiet, precise. We used elaborate lighting set-ups and shot most projects on 8×10 inch film in large, heavy view cameras. This was long before Photoshop or other digital manipulation. Any special effects that were required had to be done in-camera using only mechanical methods. We worked with a lot of very talented prop and food stylists and model makers. 

After about five years I struck out on my own shooting corporate and editorial work. In 1997, my wife, Susan, and I moved to Charlottesville with a brand-new baby girl in tow. We opened a graphic design studio and I stopped shooting professionally. When I semi-retired a year or so ago, I finally got back into photography doing personal and artistic work. My work can be viewed at www.paynedesigngroup.com/john 

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