Making manufacturing majestic

“How is this thing made?”

For some, it’s an internet search – a trip down a wormhole. “How do they make pencils?” “Are people still weaving lace?” “How are vinyl records pressed?”

But for Christopher Payne, renowned self-taught photographer, figuring out how things are made means going directly to the factories to see for himself – to see exactly how the products and technologies that shape our everyday lives come into existence.

What began as an interest in New York City subway infrastructure broadened into a passion for the processes that make jellybeans, pianos, shoes, and more. He started photographing factories in 2010, and these pictures are now collected in his book, Made in America, published in October 2023 by Abrams.


In addition to photographing traditional industries, he also dove into the processes behind more futuristic products – semiconductor materials, optical fiber, vials for carrying lifesaving vaccines.

That’s how Payne got to Corning. At Corning facilities, Payne saw exactly how glass can impact the way we work, learn, and live. He shot giant boules of thick glass, which would eventually become optical and structural components for processing microchips. He captured the curvature and flexibility of ribbon ceramics, which can be used for better battery storage. He carefully choreographed pictures of molten glass, poured in the Sullivan Park research facility. He went behind the scenes of glass and ceramic production – witnessing the birth of products that push the world forward.


In fact, Payne’s photograph of Corning’s bendable glass is featured on the cover of February’s National Geographic magazine. His photos accompany the cover story, “A Glass Revolution Is Underway. Spoiler Alert: It Bends and Bounces.”

Having been in many different manufacturing environments while photographing for his book and other publications, Payne has seen what makes each company unique. For Corning, it’s the ability to innovate.

“I haven't seen another company that is so invested in research,” Payne said. “Corning is a materials research company, while also being a glass manufacturer.”

And it’s true – while researchers at Corning work tirelessly to invent life-changing and lifesaving technology, they also must invent a way to produce it at scale, so that most of the world can benefit.

Each time he steps foot in a Corning location, Payne sees a work of art.

Payne captured how Corning perfected the manufacturing of Corning® Valor® Vials.

“When I see a beautiful moment happening, I can zero in on that,” Payne says. “The challenge is going to a place that’s big, new, and exciting; everywhere I look has potential.”

One of Payne’s photos of Corning® Valor® Vials graces a page in National Geographic. He first shot the vials when they were in development – a time when the United States was in dire need to get COVID-19 vaccines to the public despite a paralyzed global supply chain. Valor® Vials were carefully designed to eliminate breakage during a speedy fill process, which meant more vaccines to more people.

When I see a beautiful moment happening, I can zero in on that,” Payne says. “The challenge is going to a place that’s big, new, and exciting; everywhere I look has potential.

While he enjoyed taking photos of the sleek silhouettes of the tiny vessels, it wasn’t until he traveled to Durham, North Carolina, that he saw the full impact of Corning’s mass production.

“It was a much more robust operation,” Payne said. “You really do need to see the assembly line. It’s purposefully built and designed – and it’s at scale.”

Corning® Valor® Vials helped deliver COVID-19 vaccines.

But not all of Corning’s technologies are easy subjects, Payne says. The unique properties of glass make it challenging to photograph. Corning glass can be transparent, with high purity. In most applications, it’s not meant to be seen – think of how you see through your phone’s cover glass to the display or how windows give you a crisp portal to the outdoors.

“I’m a better photographer because of it,” Payne said. “It’s not going to get any easier for me as Corning keeps pushing the boundaries. Glass is going to get more difficult to shoot as it gets smaller and thinner – and less like glass.”

The process behind glassmaking makes the resulting images more spectacular. Firing a tube to form a vial’s bottleneck is a flaming dramatic scene. Scientists in silver suits pouring deathly hot liquid glass simulate aliens at work with lava.

"Once I lock in the overall composition, I let the action unfold and wait for moments of elegance when the worker looks graceful, like a ballet dancer – someone who's doing their job so well they're not even conscious of it,” Payne says.


Payne remembers a trip to Canton, New York, where he witnessed Corning employees producing Corning® HPFS® Fused Silica, a glass so pure that one of its uses is to direct light pulses during the manufacturing of some of the world’s smallest microchips with extraordinary precision. And while the glass is exceptionally pure, Payne likes to remind audiences that humans are still behind our most advanced technology.

“I loved shooting up in Canton because the glass is so big and solid. It’s also frosted, so when I lit it from the side, the whole thing glowed, and it became its own light source. This boule could not have been more photogenic!”

"One of my all-time favorite pictures is of this Corning employee tracing templates over a giant boule of glass in Canton,” Payne said. “Her focus conveys precision, and the glass is lit up like a giant sculpture. It’s the perfect combination of information and beauty. Even if we don’t see the final product or know exactly how it was made, we see enough of the process here to understand the story.”

Payne hasn’t been able to show everything he’s seen – proprietary tech requires some confidentiality, of course. But for the most part, Payne enjoys demystifying the world behind the most futuristic materials.

“Not all parts of manufacturing are photogenic,” Payne said, “but luckily, the viewer just needs to see a few key moments. It’s like writing a story. The reader doesn’t need everything spelled out to get it.”

And his photos show exactly that – a gorgeous glance at the intention, care, and meticulous methods that bring life-changing technology to the world. When you know how it’s made, the potential of Corning’s glass becomes less mystical, but gets even more monumental. It may be one photo, but it tells a larger story: the story of progress.