Perched on a ladder, Ted Spagna fastens his camera to a ceiling beam and looks down at his young female subject sprawling in the straw. Off to the side he hangs a 10-watt bulb, simulating moonlight to flatter her naked body. Spagna switches on a portable computer programmed to trip the camera, in its soundproof housing, at 15-minute intervals throughout the night; then he heads quietly for the door. All is ready to capture Mama—a 1½-year-old, 75-lb. Vietnamese potbellied pig—as she snoozes, snorts and perchance drifts into porcine dreams in her stall at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo.
Spagna has made a career of taking shots in the dark. For the past 13 years the Boston-based photographer and filmmaker has been documenting the unconscious toss-and-turn choreography of just about every creature that slumbers—newborn babies nestled in their cribs, lovers entwined in their beds, wildcats and wildebeests curled in their cages. Like Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering 19th-century studies of animal locomotion and Harold Edgerton’s stroboscopic feats with milk drops and flying bullets, Spagna’s “God’s-eye views,” as he calls them, succeed as both art and science.
“He’s the first person to photograph sleep extensively,” says Allan Hobson, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at Massachusetts Mental Health Center. “He’s shown there’s a pattern to posture shifts, and he’s enabled us to study sleep in naturalistic settings. People never get used to sleeping in labs.”
Shot in color and often printed poster size, Spagna’s single-image studies and time-lapse composites address anew the idea of what a portrait is, he says. “People are intrigued by the intimacy of his pictures,” says Marilyn Goodman, director of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, where a Spagna exhibit will open in September. “We think of sleep as downtime, but he shows us that’s not the way it is at all.” (Spagna’s next show opens Feb. 7 at the New England Science Center in Worcester, Mass.)
A native New Yorker, Spagna, 45, studied architecture at Cooper Union and earned a master’s degree in film from Boston University, but he never outgrew his teenage fascination with photo gadgetry. In 1975, while teaching cinema at City College of New York, he got a bargain on some electronic devices that enabled him to make time-lapse exposures with his manual Zeiss-Ikon without being present. On an impulse, Spagna set up the camera at the foot of his bed and photographed himself as he slept through the night. He liked the results, and when he tried again, suspending the camera overhead, he says, “I was astonished to discover another self I didn’t know existed.” Soon Spagna was coaxing his roommate, parents and friends to bed down for his camera. “They thought I was too weird for words,” he recalls, “but people put up with it because they were fascinated with the pictures.”
At first, Spagna arranged the frames in interesting designs like crosses and triangles, but it wasn’t until he began laying them out chronologically, in 1976, that the consistency of the sleep patterns he had shot were revealed. “I saw clusters of frames with movement and clusters without,” he says. “I sensed something was going on that I didn’t understand.” Spagna, then teaching cinema at Harvard, took his work to Hobson. The neurophysiologist discovered that the cycles of stillness and motion in Spagna’s subjects corresponded to the brain’s 90-minute sleep-dream cycle and that movement erupted when dream-producing REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, sleep ended. “What surprised me was how tightly synchronized movements are with brain waves,” Hobson says.
Eager to expand his focus, Spagna began photographing sleeping animals at zoos in Boston and Miami. They proved more difficult than his human subjects. The strobe lights he first used caused one nervous elephant to suffer a mammoth case of diarrhea. A family of chimpanzees spit at the photographer and mashed bananas into his lens. One peeved Himalayan tiger chewed the camera to bits.
Spagna got the message. He designed the tamper-resistant, soundproof steel case as well as a metering device that enabled him to shoot under moonlight or with low-wattage bulbs, using exposures several minutes long. Animals have shorter sleep cycles than humans and move more often. The blurred images that result are often quite startling: Standing pink flamingos, shifting positions through the night, resemble a jittery staff of musical notes. The necks of giraffes sway like slender tree trunks in a breeze. In repose, even savage beasts become surprisingly vulnerable. A Siberian tiger looks like a pudgy caterpillar in one photo; in another, a huge polar bear, sprawled on a concrete bed tinged blue with moonlight, seems to hover gently in space. “Out of physical needs, animals unconsciously create beautiful designs and compositions,” says Spagna, “just as if an artist had made them.”
Spagna believes his nocturnal images reflect truths about his subjects’ waking lives. His time-lapse studies of one human couple, Josh and Judy, taken over a period of several months, show the pair drawing back from affectionate cuddling to stiff-armed resistance. The photographs, he says, chronicle the very real decline of their relationship. “When they sleep,” he says, “people are psychologically naked before the camera.”
Spagna is continually trying to expand his range by solving troublesome technical problems. Currently he is preparing to photograph herds of rhino, zebras and antelope at Lion Country Safari in West Palm Beach by installing his camera in a moored miniblimp. Eventually he hopes to shoot slumbering astronauts in the space shuttle, celebrities (none have so far volunteered) and sleepwalkers. “None of us really appreciates the richness of the night,” he says. “I’m excited at the prospect of seeing things no one has seen before.”