"Images of The Greenbrier River"
Interview by Colleen Anderson
His studio walls are neutral gray and hung with many portraits. Some are people I know. The rest look like people I’d like to know - a quality that has made Steve Payne one of the state’s most sought-after portrait photographers. Equally esteemed as a commercial photographer, Payne has exhibited at the West Virginia Juried Exhibition, Sunrise Museum, and in the Arts and Letters series at the Governor's Mansion, among other honors.
We’re surrounded by a comfortable wash of sounds - music from the next room, the soft bubble of an aquarium - as we settle on the sofa to look at his latest work.
Steve Payne is moving in a new direction. There isn’t a single human face in any of these photographs. These are pictures of rocks, water, leaves, and trees. Even so, the images are rendered with an intimacy and warmth that make them seem as lovingly considered as the face of a dear friend. They have the quality of, well, portraits.
"They are portraits," Payne tells me, "another kind of portrait. They’re portraits of rocks and leaves and water. I’m in love with rocks and water, I really am."
Payne’s new works form an exhibition, "Images of the Greenbrier River," which premiered at Callen McJunkin Gallery in Charleston and moves in April to the Cooper Gallery in downtown in Lewisburg. The limited edition prints (Payne will print no more than 30 reproductions of each) have attracted a great deal of interest, according to art dealer Callen McJunkin. "People comment on how painterly these photographs are," she says. "The more people know about art and photography, the more they appreciate his photographs."
Art director John Auge, who has worked with Payne on many commercial projects, agrees: "When I think of Steve, the first word that comes to mind is sensitivity. He seizes the opportunity to keep art in front of the advertising need."
Most of Payne’s new images came from a single two-mile stretch of river between milepost 5 and milepost 7 of the Greenbrier River Trail. "A few of them were done near Watoga State Park, because that’s where I went as a boy," Payne says. "My parents always took us to Watoga to vacation, and that’s when I fell in love with The Greenbrier River. I make trips back there every year, even if it’s just for a few hours. There’s a part of my childhood that’s still there.
"I love water. Water is the life force. I’ve always wanted to photograph water in this way. This has always been a part of me, because when I was growing up, we had all kinds of creeks, and that’s where I lived – in the middle of a creek, digging out lizards, and fishing for fish that weren’t there, and building boats that didn’t float. Once I got an old door off a construction site, and built some sides on it, and I thought I had a boat. Took it out in the middle of this big pool in the creek and just slowly went right down in the water." He laughs. "So that goes way back."
Payne’s connection with the Greenbrier River goes back even further. Although he was raised in St. Albans, his father grew up in Greenbrier County. "When I’m there, it’s sort of being back in my father’s childhood. He loved the woods and the water, and that’s where he spent his childhood. We share that on a deep level."
As we look through the photographs, I am moved by two qualities: the jewel-like colors and the near-abstract compositions of simple shapes and lines. For 20 years, Payne has worked mostly in black and white. I comment on the rich colors in an image of a single leaf resting on pine needles. "
I’ve always done so much black and white photography," he replies, "but I didn't want to pass this color up, I just couldn't do without the color. This image would translate well to black and white, but many of them would not." He selects a photograph of moving water in which blue and orange swirl like the pattern on marbled paper. "The color is caused by the reflections of the sky, which is the blue, and the mountain, which has turned golden."
The elegant simplicity of the images is no accident, either. "I have always tried to get beyond the particular place. I like to get down to the core experience," he says. He points to an image of leaves and rocks in water. "This is one of my favorites. To me, that really shows a Zen quality. You know, most of these leaves are dead. When I started doing this series, it was way past when you would think you would go photograph fall foliage. Everything looked dead - on the surface. So you look deeper. And then you find this real elegance in the death of these leaves. If you took each of those leaves, and looked at them, you’d say, oh, I wouldn’t keep that one, I’d throw that one away. We all want to be perfect, by ourselves, but this shows you that perfection’s in harmony more than in the individual.
For the past few years, Payne has been finding harmony in another way: songwriting. When I ask how the two arts fit together in his life, he responds without hesitation: "You’ve got form, you’ve got line, and tone, and harmony. Music on-music off is, you know, negative space and positive space. I build a photograph, and I build a song."
Music has always been there, too. "My father played saxophone and my mother played piano. We were always around music. The arts were important to us. I always wanted to be an artist. I sang in the church choir when I was young. And I’ll never forget my first meeting with a tape recorder. I loved to sing, and I’d sing all the time. One week, they had me doing this solo in church, and this guy brought a tape recorder to choir practice. They made this tape, and they played it back, and I heard my voice, and I never sang in choir again. I quit the choir. That was it. ‘
I can remember back when I was nine, ten years old, having these songs going on in my head, and thinking, what’s that? Where did that come from? Usually it was some jazz thing. I had the whole big band going in my head. But songwriting, I didn’t connect that as a job that you could have, some way that you could earn a living."
Photography made that connection for him. "I was interested in so many different things. And I had this little Instamatic camera, you know, with a cartridge, and I’d go out and take pictures of friends with that camera. One day it just hit me: if I could be a photographer, no matter what I was interested in, I could photograph it. That’s why I became a photographer."
Payne’s future in both photography looks bright. His photographs seem to be satisfying the viewing public as well as the artist. "I feel strongly about continuing with this work and getting it to a wider audience. I’d like to have this show on the road all the time. And it’ll change constantly. Every time I show, it’ll be a different show."
By Colleen Anderson, owner of MotherWit