Aren’t we all CoverJunkies: New York Magazine feat Ted Spagna


Born on October 11, 1943, Spagna was an influential teacher, filmmaker, and photographer who received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from The Cooper Union in 1970 and his graduate degree from Boston University in 1972. 

In 1975, Spagna began to photograph humans sleeping in order to investigate the relationship between art and science and to satisfy his own curiosity about sleep behavior. He soon discovered the indefatigable eye of the time-lapse camera was the ideal tool to uncover this “hidden landscape” of sleep and dreams. Each portrait typically consists of approximately 30 images, taken at fixed intervals throughout the night from a point directly over the sleeper, and are displayed together in sequential chronological order. The images expose the subject in a way that is only accessible through time-lapse techniques. This ordered ensemble of photographs depicts the sleeper through time and space, revealing a new kind of portraiture.

Sleep subjects included humans ranging in age from newborns to a 92 year old man, and eventually animals in captivity – giraffes, tigers, elephants, rhinos, gorillas, flamingos, to name a few. The images depict the inherent beauty, rhythm, and organization of natural behavior. Spagna talked of these sleep pictures in terms of Muybridge, likened them to silent film, and often spoke formally about what he called the “architecture of sleep.” 

The significance of Spagna’s work lies in both its aesthetic and scientific implications. The discovery that his photographs had scientific relevance happened when he shared them with Dr. Allan Hobson, a well-known neurophysiologist at Harvard University. Researchers never had this kind of visual information before. Spagna’s work corroborated and amplified studies about sleep behavior. His photographs were evidence of a ninety-minute human sleep cycle, and physiological manifestations of dream activity. Together they collaborated on the landmark exhibition “Dreamstage,” a multi-media exhibition which used Spagna’s  photos and other scientific demonstrations to illuminate the function of sleep. “Dreamstage” premiered in 1977 at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, MA and later toured eleven American cities and traveled to Bordeaux, France.

Spagna’s sleep studies were featured on “Nova,” “Sixty Minutes,” and “Good Morning America.” They were also featured in “The New York Times Magazine,” “People,” and “Art In America.” His work has won numerous awards including the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship, the Annual Award of Excellence in Photography from Communication Arts magazine, and the Rush Gold Medal Award from the American Psychiatric Association for his work on “Dreamstage.”

Until his death on June 21, 1989, Ted Spagna thrived on his interactions with scientists and technicians and enjoyed working as an artist in the boundary between art and science. What compelled him the most was his endless curiosity about the unknowable sleeping psyche and the desire to inspire exploration, discovery and learning.

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On the cover of our new issue: marriage. This cover depicts real married couples from all ages and backgrounds, and is inspired by late photographer Ted Spagna's "Sleep" series from the 1970s, which was a photographic sleep study of couples shot on a timer throughout the night. For our marriage issue, we had conversations with 74 couples (and one throuple), touching on topics like what makes a marriage work, the secrets they keep from their spouses, infidelity, infertility, losing a child, cancer, and more. Tap the link in our bio right now to read an introductory essay by Heather Havrilesky on whether the institution of marriage itself is obsolete, in which she writes "Marriage can’t simply be about living your best lives in sync. Because some of the peak moments of a marriage are when you share in your anxieties, your fears, your longing, and even your horrors."

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Time to read
2 min
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Published on
2 April 2019
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Find out more on Ted Spagna's website
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