What A Pioneering Photog Taught Us About How We Sleep

Ted Spagna’s time-lapse pics provided information and visuals that sleep researchers had never seen before.

In an era when big data and sensors are at the forefront of technology, it feels like we have a measurement for everything: What we ate, how many likes, who bought what. But when it comes to sleep, we still lack clarity. Even with the boom in wellness trackers, sleep is reduced to charts and percentages.


Understanding what leads to quality sleep can be a murky business. It’s also still a relatively new field of study: As recently as the 1950s, a grad student discovered REM sleep cycles. And in the late 1970s, Ted Spagna’s work helped corroborate it.

In 1975, Spagna was an early adopter of time-lapse photography equipment. On a lark, the artist–who passed away in 1989–positioned some of this new camera gear above his own bed and took a series of self-portraits while he slept.

“He loved the pictures he saw,” says Delia Bonfilio, his goddaughter and manager of his estate. “His friends who were artistic, architects, designers of all kinds–they thought it was too weird and intimate at first. But then he convinced his family and sister, niece, and nephew to take these sleep portraits, and his friends started to see the significance in the work. It grew organically.”

A neurophysiologist at Harvard, Dr. Allan Hobson, also saw the significance. The photographs provided information and visuals that sleep researchers had never seen before. Not only did they confirm theories about REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, but they cast a fantastically revealing light on the sleep states of individuals, intimate relationships, and infants.

In an interview on Good Morning America, Spagna recounts a study he did on one couple, in which the woman was the sleep “leader,” initiating all the tossing and turning that happens throughout the night. When the couple split, Spagna photographed the man (a friend of his) a few weeks later in Boston. The solo shots, taken at 15-minute intervals, reveal someone reeling in restless, habitual turmoil after going through a break up. Studies of babies show frenetic kicking and rolling around. “Babies dream for 14 or 15 hours a day,” Spagna says during the interview. “When you’re born, your computer of a brain is empty. It’s laying down programs.”

Over the course of 14 years, Spagna completed thousands of sleep studies, ranging from newborns to his own 92-year-old grandfather. For a time he forayed into photographing animals in their sleeping states at zoos. He collaborated with scientists and dream researchers, the photographs amplified knowledge about the function of sleep, or what Spagna called the “Architecture of Sleep.”


For a subject matter so universal, the photographs can be disarming. The portraits of couples can reveal deep love and tenderness, or sometimes distance. The images of singles show a mix of peace and tension. Some images might make you look away immediately, for fear of being caught spying.

This September, a collection of Spagna’s photographs representing 25 years of work will appear in Sleep, a book from Rizzoli.

Read more about The Ted Spagna Project here.

[Images courtesy of George Eastman House and the Estate of Ted Spagna]

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.