North Brother Island: Haunting Photographs of the Last Unknown Place in New York City
An otherworldly portrait of the eternal dance between life and death, wilderness and civilization.
By Maria Popova
“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to the city. In the middle of the East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island, in strange proximity to New York’s ample participatory excitements, there exists a glorious yet invisible pocket of privacy — an almost otherworldly twenty-acre islet, at once ghostly and full of life. Abandoned in 1963 and closed to the public since, it remains virtually unknown even to New Yorkers.
In North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City (public library), photographer Christopher Payne — who has previously documented the haunting world of 19th-century mental asylums — captures this striking parallel universe that exists just outside the world’s most exciting city.
The island was once the flat and bare hospital campus for treating smallpox victims, then became a juvenile drug treatment center, and is now a lush wildlife sanctuary with overgrown greenery taking its posthumous revenge on civilization. (A curious intersection, given Payne’s previous project: Riverside Hospital, the island’s original resident, migrated there from Blackwell’s Island, currently known as Roosevelt Island — the site of pioneering Victorian journalist Nellie Bly’s landmark 1887 exposé of asylum abuse.)
Taken over a period of years with the city’s permission, Payne’s photographs — a gutted house through which the forest peeks; a morgue in an overrun building; a boiler house engulfed in a thick coat of kudzu, the coiling perennial vine that has colonized the area — reveal the island as a kind of heavenly purgatory reconciling civilization and wilderness, death and life.
Complement Payne’s altogether enchanting North Brother Island with a history of New York in 101 objects and Jane Dorn’s haunting photographs of abandoned buildings in the South, then revisit the story of how a vintage children’s book saved New York’s little red lighthouse.
Photographs courtesy of Christopher Payne
Published April 20, 2015