See the Hidden Images Lurking Within LED Billboards

Incredible split-second patterns in New York advertisements captured on large-format film

"Falafel Stand," 42nd Street and Broadway, 2014. Gold toned gelatin silver print, 30x40"© Michael Massaia
"Taxi & Lamp Post 1," 43rd Street and 7th Avenue, New York, December 2014. Selenium toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
"Hotdog Vendor 2," 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, New York, March 2015. Selenium toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
"Marriot Billboard Variation 1," Times Square, New York, November 2014. Gold toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
"Marriot Billboard Variation 4," Times Square, New York, November 2014. Gold toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
"Taxi and Lamp Post 2," 49th Street and 7th Avenue, New York, December 2014. Gold toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
"Hotdog Vendor 3," 48th Street and Broadway, New York, December 2014. Gold toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
"Taxi and Construction Cone," 46th Street, New York, December 2014. Gold toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
"Hotdog Vendor 2," 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, New York, March 2015. Selenium toned gelatin silver print, 30x40".© Michael Massaia
From "Signals Crossed," 2014© Michael Massaia
From "Signals Crossed," 2014© Michael Massaia

With his 8x10” and 4x5” view cameras and his penchant for stalking the world at night, Michael Massaia captures images like no other. In his most recent series, "Signals Crossed," he transforms the giant, brightly lit advertisements of Times Square into visions of ephemeral beauty. And, he does it all while most of us are fast asleep. We caught up with him to find out where he finds inspiration and what happens to your brain when you rarely see the light of day.

Where did the idea for this series come from?

I have really bad insomnia. I don’t sleep at night. And a lot of nights I hang out in Times Square. One time I was working on a picture and next to me was a guy having mental problems; he believed that his thoughts were being translated on the screen in front of us. In a strange way I related to him. I became obsessed with trying to outsmart those ads, and trying to create something more compelling than the ad itself.

Why do you call the project “Signals Crossed”?

Most of my photography is kind of me innocently misperceiving everything in my environment—getting my signals crossed. It’s me having a weird emotional reaction. My reaction is so off from what the majority of the people are feeling and also usually not what’s actually going on in reality. I think that so much of what I do is a result of my weird emotional triggers. So when I saw all this crazy stuff on these billboards I knew I was experiencing them in this way that the advertisers weren’t shooting for and that other people wouldn’t see.

© Michael Massaia

You use iconic New York elements—the taxi, the hot dog stand, street lights—to ground the images of the screens. Why add that particular kind of element to the photographs?

This is kind of all I know—I don't really travel. I live in New Jersey and my brother lives in New York City. I also think subconsciously—or consciously—this series is about New York and the changing nature of the city. There are things that are severely changing and things that are constants. What’s changing is the abundance of information and the way we process it and then there’s the little hot dog cart underneath it and that’s the constant. Thank God for the constant. Stuff is moving so fast and thank God there’s an anchor. I can only speak from personal experience but I have a sensitivity to these things. I know when I see this stuff it has a negative effect on me. Screens do a number on me—I feel sick when I look at a smartphone screen too long. I have always had an issue with them. When I work on a computer, I wear sunglasses.

The work is a reaction to overstimulation but your images look so still and beautiful—viewing the photographs is almost the opposite of experiencing the screens in person. Can you talk about the contrast between the idea behind them and the resulting image?

The contrast excites me. I try to find that because my life is overstimulating and stupid. Whenever I can see a transformation take place it gives me a certain amount of hope in what I do. There are a lot of photographers who try to depict reality and that always kind of bored me. I love the magic aspect of taking something that’s in front of people all the time and reintroducing it to myself. If my work was about depicting the obvious things I’d lose interest. Yes, I see the future as upsetting in many ways. But what can you do? You’ve got to grin and bear it and walk into it.

Watch the process behind Michael Massaia's large-format black-and-white photography:

You use iconic New York elements—the taxi, the hot dog stand, street lights—to ground the images of the screens. Why add that particular kind of element to the photographs?

This is kind of all I know—I don't really travel. I live in New Jersey and my brother lives in New York City. I also think subconsciously—or consciously—this series is about New York and the changing nature of the city. There are things that are severely changing and things that are constants. What’s changing is the abundance of information and the way we process it and then there’s the little hot dog cart underneath it and that’s the constant. Thank God for the constant. Stuff is moving so fast and thank God there’s an anchor. I can only speak from personal experience but I have a sensitivity to these things. I know when I see this stuff it has a negative effect on me. Screens do a number on me—I feel sick when I look at a smartphone screen too long. I have always had an issue with them. When I work on a computer, I wear sunglasses.

The work is a reaction to overstimulation but your images look so still and beautiful—viewing the photographs is almost the opposite of experiencing the screens in person. Can you talk about the contrast between the idea behind them and the resulting image?

The contrast excites me. I try to find that because my life is overstimulating and stupid. Whenever I can see a transformation take place it gives me a certain amount of hope in what I do. There are a lot of photographers who try to depict reality and that always kind of bored me. I love the magic aspect of taking something that’s in front of people all the time and reintroducing it to myself. If my work was about depicting the obvious things I’d lose interest. Yes, I see the future as upsetting in many ways. But what can you do? You’ve got to grin and bear it and walk into it.

Watch the process behind Michael Massaia's large-format black-and-white photography:

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