From Hayley Evans’ review of two of Michael Massaia’s series, “Afterlife: New Jersey” and “Deep in a Dream: Sheep Meadow,” for Beautiful/Decay:
Michael Massaia is a photographer from New Jersey whose black-and-white imagery has an uncanny way of making the familiar seem unfamiliar: ordinary scenes are transformed into stunning portraits of isolation, desolation, and mystery. Two series are featured here: “Afterlife” and “Sheep Meadow: Vertical Abstracts.” The former documents vacant amusement piers along the New Jersey coastline, and the latter comprises vertical portraits of people sleeping in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. While the subject matter is drastically different between the series — urban landscape photography and portraiture, respectively — both convey Massaia’s unique style: the haunting documentation of ordinary things that resonate with a deep sense of reflection and a yearning for connection.
Started in 2008, “Afterlife” features amusement piers in states of vacancy and ghost-like deterioration, photographed in the quiet hours between 4 and 6 o’clock in the morning. Most of the images were shot in FunTown and Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. In environments usually known for noise and elation, silence prevails; carousels lie dormant, and the architectural bones of roller coasters and ferris wheels loom against cloudy, darkened skies. Many of these structures were destroyed by hurricane Sandy in 2012. Shooting before and after the catastrophic event, Massaia’s unearthly photographs trouble us with their radiating atmospheres of stillness and absence.
“Sheep Meadow: Vertical Abstracts” is an extension of an earlier project titled “Deep in a Dream.” Massaia photographed people as they lay alone or in pairs on the grass. None of the subjects knew that they were being documented, allowing for candidly peaceful, reflective, and intimate postures. Vertical Abstracts sees photos of sleeping couples turned vertically and flipped backwards, making it appear as if they were floating or dancing through an otherworldly void. Massaia describes how the final prints “are gold-toned silver gelatin prints . . . [and] the grass is severely ‘burnt in’ to isolate and give the look of suspension to the subject.” The strong contrast between the bodies and the surrounding darkness illuminates moments of beautiful (and strangely anxious) connection between the reclining couples.