During his mid 20s, Michael Massaia developed a terrible case of insomnia. In order to give himself a break from sitting around all night “staring at the walls,” he began to go on long walks. Massaia grew up in New Jersey but became enamored with New York City during his late-night strolls, when the city was less congested and fewer people were around. Thankfully, the self-taught photographer took his camera along, creating the series “Deep in a Dream, Central Park.”
Massaia worked a series of “crappy” jobs, including stints in movie theaters and warehouses, before finding photography.
“I have a really obsessive mind so I got into the technical aspect of [photography],” he said. “I went immediately into large-format photography, and I started modifying my own cameras, building my own printing equipment, and when I started out I was doing pretty much all analog printing.”
His images of landscapes and everyday objects taken around New York and New Jersey have incredibly rich black-and-white tones due to his processing techniques. He shoots with slow black-and-white film and develops with a stain developer called Pyro that many people don’t like to use anymore because of its toxicity. What it creates, however, are images with long tonal scales (rich blacks and whites) in the negatives, which Massaia then scans to create a series of internegatives and masks, which are eventually printed on white Mylar sheets.
“It gets a little ridiculous,” he says of his process. “It’s being so deficient in other areas that it’s almost out of desperation I get so heavy into things. It’s hard for me to be taught things … it’s my only way to learn stuff; just lock myself into a room and figure things out.”
From 2009 to 2014, Massaia spent every year documenting Central Park, mostly in the early spring “when things are just starting to bloom that gives [the images] a bit of softness.” He would shoot for about an hour before the sun rose, when there was the slightest hint of daylight without any harsh shadows.
Although it’s a time of night that is a bit unnerving and would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago, apart from a few issues of attempted robbery and one fight, things have gone smoothly for Massaia.
“The park goes through a metamorphosis at night and gets kind of dark,” he said.
“When you operate an 8-by-10 camera you have a dark cloth over your head so you can’t see around you or notice who might be coming behind you … you’re a sitting duck.”
Insomnia, however, is one battle Massaia has resigned himself to accept as unwinnable.
“I’ve never really figured out how to deal with it, and I’ve grown into [it] and have become very productive as a result. I don’t take medication for it anymore. I said, screw it; it’s the way I’m wired. Once you accept it, it’s not so bad.”