Artist tells Payne Avenue stories through portraits

courtesy of Stephan Kistler • Photographer Stephan Kistler spent much of early 2018 going up and down Payne Avenue taking portraits of business owners, residents and visitors, like the one seen above. His portraits and stories about the subjects will be on display at the East Side Arts Council office, 977 Payne Ave., starting in September.

courtesy of Stephan Kistler • Kistler’s project is called “Transitions, Payne Avenue: Portrait of a Community,” and features both old and new Payne Avenue businesses.

Stephan Kistler

During much of this last long and cold winter, St. Paul photographer Stephan Kistler spent time on Payne Avenue taking portraits of the people who live, work, and visit one of the East Side’s main streets.

The product of his work is called “Transitions, Payne Avenue: Portrait of a Community,” and will be on display at the East Side Arts Council office, 977 Payne Ave. starting in September. 

Kistler, who has loved photography his whole life, said the project is not only about telling the stories of the people who depend on Payne Avenue, but also to build connections within the community. 


Photography genetics

Originally from Switzerland, Kistler came to the Twin Cities in 1978 to complete his graduate studies. Now retired, he worked at 3M for his career, but came from a long line of photographers. 

Both his parents and grandparents, along with other family members, were photographers. He said as a teenager, he inherited a 1932 Leica camera, which he said still works to this day. 

He met his wife soon after arriving in the cities and they’ve lived here ever since — they currently live in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul. 

While he never lived on the East Side, Kistler was familiar with the area. In the late 1970s, he and his friends had visited the Payne Reliever, which at the time was a disco and bar. 


A potential portrait

The photography project started with a broken dehumidifier. 

Last summer, while searching for appliance repair places, Kistler found A+ Appliance on Payne and brought the machine in. 

When he walked into the store, he saw what could have been a potential portrait, had he brought his camera along. 

The way the person at the front desk was standing, and the lighting, he said, reminded him of a Walker Evans-style portrait — Evans was a well-known Depression-era portrait photographer, often credited as moving portrait photography into a photojournalistic realm.

“I said, ‘Maybe there’s other interesting people here, maybe it could be turned into an interesting exploration of an area of town I knew a little bit about, but not that much,” Kistler said. 

It would be a few months before he really hit the avenue, starting his project over the winter. 


The beauty of black and white

Kistler presents his work in black and white and is influenced by other photographers who shot in shades of gray.

“Any visual art form is, to an extent, a reduction of reality into a two dimensional view,” Kistler said. “Black and white provides an additional level of abstraction that requires a focus on other things — the story, the composition, the light. It kind of maximizes that, while taking away the distraction of color.”

Besides the work of Evans, Kistler said he also takes inspiration from Dorothea Lange, another Depression-era photog, known especially for an image of a mother with a worried expression, surrounded by her children. 

He is also influenced by the work of Robert Frank, a Swiss-American photographer who was well-known for his collection of portraits published in a book called “The Americans.”

Kistler said for him, using black and white is a connection to the history of photography. He said while some may call his work traditional, he says the content of his photos is contemporary.  


A corridor in transition

As Kistler worked during the winter, collecting images of the people of Payne, he also collected their stories, which will be featured with the photographs in the exhibition. 

The most noticeable theme he discovered while traversing the avenue was an idea of things going away and things coming in, the avenue in transition. He said there were some long-established businesses where owners were getting close to retiring, reflecting on their time on the avenue and all its changes.

To juxtapose that, Kistler said there is a variety of newer business coming in, run by younger people who have a lot of energy and excitement to revitalize the avenue; these young people also seem to have anxiety about the future. 

Besides the businesses, he said there are a lot of people who live just a few blocks off Payne in the residential areas, who use the corridor for running errands. While they come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, he said he sees a lot of throughlines — “There’s a lot of similarities between the stories.”

Kistler said his Payne Avenue portrait project is about building connections between the people along the corridor, a place full of diversity. He said he hopes it will connect neighbors, helping them realize that while the people of Payne Avenue may come from many different backgrounds, they aren’t all that different, and that many have similar stories.  

He said this work has been “energized by the recent political environment” and the divisions created by it, as he has observed, and hopes the project can be one step to “overcome divisions.”


More than just art

Outside his portrait project, Kistler has found other ways to get involved on the avenue that has served as his artistic backdrop. 

While making the photos, Kistler joined the Payne Arcade Business Association and has gotten involved with the Payne Avenue Reboot program, a future strategic revitalization project being led by members of the association. 

“I think job creation and affordable housing are key,” Kistler said of the corridor’s revitalization.

He said he decided to become involved with the Payne Avenue Reboot program, because, “I feel like life has been good to me and I want to share and give back. It’s my way to help make something and to actually achieve positive change for people who need it.”

There will be an opening reception for Kistler’s project at the East Side Arts Council on Sept. 6 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through January 2019. 


– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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