Earl Cecil Payne was born in 1921 in San Francisco, California. He grew up in the Encinitas area of San Diego County when it was still largely undeveloped. Payne was interested in Art and Photography when he was in high school. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy where he became an aerial photographer. He received basic photographic training at the Naval School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida. In 1944, he was assigned to Guam to do aerial photos in order to evaluate bombing results. Payne’s work in Guam was largely in black and white with all negatives processed in the darkroom. During his time there he had a lot of in the field training in camera and darkroom techniques. The quality of his work was extremely important since they were to be used to select the next mission targets.
After the end of the war Payne moved to Sacramento where his fellow Navy mate and aerial photographer, Vern Cartwright was working. Payne became a commercial photographer, and did school photography for most of his career. During this time he continued to develop his photographic skills
by taking courses in figure photography from William Mortenson in Southern California. Payne’s personal interest was in nature photography similar to that of Ansel Adams. He began to photograph Yosemite in all its seasons to record views under various lighting conditions. Typical of that era, his early nature photography consisted of almost entirely black and white images since color was still evolving and the more stable black and white negatives could be enhanced in the darkroom to create large prints.
Another special interest of Payne’s was the Bristlecone Pine Forest, the world’s oldest living trees located in the White Mountains of Eastern California. He made many trips there before the area was developed. He made large prints in black and white showing the beautiful texture of the tree bark and the grotesque shapes of the trees after centuries of wind and harsh winters. Later, he would go back and photograph them in color. California wildflowers interested Payne a he would often spend hours composing both scenic and close up shots of dozens of different species. Wishing to share his enthusiasm and knowledge, he taught a night class in wildflower photography every spring for El Camino High School in Sacramento and led field trips on the weekends.
Payne married Muriel Hopkins in 1971. Muriel was born in Sacramento and graduated from Stanford University in 1946. She also graduated from Sacramento State University with a degree in education. Muriel was an artist by training and a great scout for finding dramatic photographic opportunities for Payne. She taught at Sacramento High School for many years. She developed a pilot program for the teaching of visual and performing arts for the entire state of California under a grant from the Department of Education. Her program in art education is still used in high schools across the state.
Together Earl and Muriel traveled all over California and the West on photographic trips documenting the beautifully intricate landscapes. They did this for thirty-five years until Earl’s passing in 2006 at the age of eighty-four. Payne’s work provides a vast and varied collection of California nature . All of his work was done before the age of digital photography, and many of his subjects have been destroyed by developments or other means. His work is a testament to the beauty of California and the West and will live on in the California State Library due to his and his families generosity and kind-heart.