Impeccable Attention to Technique and Composition
Michael Massaia, the self taught, American photographer and printmaker was born in 1978 in New Jersey. Focusing primarily on large format black and white film, the body of images he has produced in the last decade show impeccable attention to technique and composition. His preference of subjects and concepts also lend Massaia’s work its unique quality, as Massaia pushes the boundaries of photographic exploration and presents locations from his very native New York in nocturnal or pre-dawn light.
The City that Never Sleeps
Finding comfort in solitude, growing up Massaia knew that he was always drawn to expressing ideas through the visual. Being an insomniac, he would take long walks in New Jersey, documenting what are normally crowded, lively areas, in moments of quietude. He eventually took the idea further, photographing not only his own neighborhood but also Manhattan, the place that is famously known as ‘the city that never sleeps’. Within the last decade, his series have come to enchant the viewer with their luminous, mysterious aura and incredible detailing.
The overarching themes in Michael Massaia’s works are isolation, quietude and an attempt to put a spotlight on things we are too busy to concentrate on in the day light. His fascination with the ghostly quality of metropolitan spaces observed in darkness has given rise to several bodies of work. The most familiar metropol for him was and still is the one right in front of his doorstep; New York. On the sense of familiarity he says;
“From a creative point of view, having a consistent level of familiarity with your environment tends to help in producing some of the most honest and meaningful work.’”
Familiarity, at times, did propose challenges for the artist. As someone who is reluctant to travel far, Massaia found new ways of looking at the very place he grew up in. He produced series documenting the Central Park, the hotel Waldorf Astoria, New Jersey and various neighborhoods in the city. Massaia says:
“When I start any photo projects, my aspirations with it are usually very selfish. Since I was 5 years old, I always had this very romantic and extremely unrealistic view of New York City. I used to go up on my roof in New Jersey just to see if I could get a glimpse of the Empire State Building. I loved the fact (especially when I was younger) that the city had this quality that at any given moment something wonderful could happen. It seemed unhinged and free. As time went on, the reality of the city kind of chipped away at my idealistic view of New York City, but oddly enough my insomnia was allowed me to hold on to a piece of my youthful outlook.”
In a way, Michael Massaia chases back his memories from the past of a city that is always yet never the same.
One of Massaia’s newest and continuing series is simply titled, Beginnings. The series of photographs are focused solely on the Financial District area of Manhattan. He began photographing the area in 2021, during the heart of the pandemic. He had always thought that the Financial District was compelling and interesting, not only to mention that it was exactly where Manhattan had historically begun. Both a symbol for New York City and a symbol for finance, the district is best known for its overcrowded, buzzing streets during daytime. Due to the remote working system during the pandemic however, Michael Massaia observed that the area had dissipated its energy, almost as if it was not the financial heart of the city.
“Because the spirit went away it made the subject matter come to life for me. I’m not someone who is too interested in photographs being completely literal. Whenever I shoot, there’s always the feeling of a recent absence. I don’t like to go to the places that are just vacant forever, abandoned. But rather places that are usually pretty crowded.”
Michael Massaia, Beginnings – New York – Telegraph #1, 2023, Sepia, Selenium, & Gold toned Silver Gelatin Photograph
Just Before Sunrise
Massaia’s routine usually consists of a shooting period roughly between 2 – 5 AM, during the hours just before sunrise. The fact that he knows that in just a few hours, the streets in the Financial District would come to life speaks for the idea of ‘recent absence’ seen in his photographs. These quiet moments are ominous, melancholic; there’s a ghostly quality to the images.
Michael Massaia, Beginnings – New York – Entrance #2, 2023, Sepia, Selenium, & Gold toned Silver Gelatin Photograph
The dreaminess in Michael Massaia’s ‘one shot’ images from the Financial District are all the more heightened with their meticulous execution. No photograph is improvised. Massaia spends around 6 months prior to shooting an image, scouting the locations and formulating a plan of photographing. For this series, he used copy film, a slow black and white film with huge range of resolution and dimension, as he wanted the images to be hyper-sharp. The compositions link the present city to the past. Symmetry, a crucial criteria for Michael Massaia is a recurring element in the series. The building entrances and facades are photographed in the very center of the frame, creating a highly symmetrical photograph. His disciplined working style is apparent in each stage, from scouting and conception to the actual shoot, and then the printing process. Massaia does all of his own printing and each photograph is rendered with great detail and resolution.
Reaching a Wider Audience
Having created various series within the last decade, the work of Michael Massaia has been extensively exhibited throughout the United States. His technical and compositional excellence have reached a wider audience through television documentaries, features in local news broadcasts, and photography magazines. He has been a recipient in the 2013 Hearst 8 x 10 Photography Biennial. Today, Massaia continues to produce uniquely beautiful photographs in his home town, New Jersey, while also continuing to work on the series, Beginnings.