At the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an example of the first 88-key piano model built by Steinway & Sons in 1868, its rosewood case containing an inventive cast-iron frame held aloft by three ornate legs. Now in the 21st century, the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, continues to produce some of the finest musical instruments in the world, maintaining its historic artisanship while adopting more recent innovations. In his new book Making Steinway, photographer Christopher Payne captures this process of piano building, and contrasts his images with archival views of the factory in 1916.
There are more safety goggles, and some newer machines, yet on the whole the juxtaposition of the past and present shows that not too much has changed in how you put together a piano. Making Steinway is a limited-edition publication available from Steinway and Benrubi Gallery, where Payne exhibited some of his Steinway photographs in 2012. The piano company offered Payne extensive access to the factory, where he spent hours with its woodcarvers, action aligners, tone analyzers, and other artisans. His photographs include their portraits, as well as detail shots that linger on each element of the instrument. And there are plenty: each of the 88 keys alone involves 57 individual components for their actions.
The book is arranged chronologically to follow the piano from start to finish, from the fiery plate casting at the O. S. Kelly Foundry in Springfield, Ohio, to the grand chandelier-lit Steinway Hall showroom on West 57th Street (which was sold in 2013, with Steinway relocating in 2014). Along the way, the activity of the 440,000-square-foot factory is the focus, emphasizing the human touch that guides each step of the year-long process that goes into one instrument. Although there are some textual notes, the book is on the whole a visual narrative. (For more in-depth writing on the Steinway construction, I’d direct you to James Barron’s thorough 2006 book Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand.)
Payne is likely better known for his images of abandoned places, like the decaying Kirkbride Plan asylums exhibited at Benrubi Gallery earlier this year (covered on Hyperallergic), or the overgrown ruins of North Brother Island in the East River. The Steinway images, albeit populated with workers, share with these series an appreciation for the human interactions with spaces.
“My new work is really an extension of the old, a celebration of manufacturing and craftsmanship that is happening in the present instead of the past,” Payne told Hyperallergic. “I first toured the Steinway factory in 2002, while still working as an architect, and for many years I kept thinking about what I had seen, given my interest in assembly and appreciation of the built form. After my father and grandmother passed away — both were pianists — my memories of the factory took on a more profound, spiritual importance, and I felt an obligation to return to take pictures of the instrument so deeply connected to my family.”
The Steinway factory offers regular public tours, but for those who may never step inside its walls, Payne’s photographs sharply chronicle, piece by piece, the incredible work that goes into creating a piano.
Making Steinway by Christopher Payne is out now from Steinway and the Benrubi Gallery.
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