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"Sleep" by Ted Spagna

Where science meets art, a photo book of humans in their most vulnerable state

by Lauren Espeseth
on 21 August 2013
sleep_tedspagna-1.jpg sleep_tedspagna-2.jpg

Teacher, filmmaker and photographer Ted Spagna was as engrossed in the sciences of sleep and technology as he was in creating art. His sleep project depicts a shift from the conceptual side of science to a more human one; exploring the intimacy, vulnerability and range of emotions involved in the sleeping state. His photos—taken during the 1970s and '80s—show sorrow and loneliness, as well as humor and sexuality. In some cases, Spagna even frames himself as the voyeur and unabashedly expects his audience to join in. At the time, images like these—time-lapses of humans in their natural sleeping state—had not been captured before. And they are equally as fascinating decades later.


In the coming weeks, 24 years after Spagna's death, Rizzoli will take on the task of publishing his beautiful and intriguing sleep studies. The photographs in the book, entitled "Sleep," are accompanied by a thoughtful forward by photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who sheds light on Spagna's technique and motivation—a constant and engaging clash of art and science. With his systematic approach to photography and time lapse, his subjects (who ranged from children with their pets to elderly couples) became just as curious about what they were like in their sleep as Spagna was himself.

Spagna was able to gain an entirely new understanding of body language through the cinematic portrayal of his subjects. Using his unconventional elevated camera position, " which he called 'God's-eye view,'" explains Mark, "the camera becomes a fly on the ceiling." With this the viewer becomes a voyeur. Spagna is as intrusive as he is inconspicuous; there is an intimacy presented that is both uncomfortable and tender for viewers. Comparable to the works of cubist painters, Spagna's angle flattens the image to offer a unique understanding of the subject or subjects and the depth of their sleep.


For Spagna, the photographs remained a science. He was able to take an entire night of events and condense them to a point where patterns could be detected and compared. He was asked by a fellow professor at Harvard to analyze the length and depth of sleep through his time lapses. Looking at a sequence, the pair was able to point out when REM cycles would fluctuate in the actual photographs. His work provided scientists insight into something that hadn't been so thoroughly investigated before. And it was this project, which became an art and a science, that Spagna dedicated his work and life to.

"Sleep" is set for release 3 September 2013, but is currently available for pre-order online from Amazon for $55.

Images by Lauren Espeseth

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