Interview by Monika Kiss
Exploding with life and movement — Pelle Cass’s project “Selected People” depicts chaos and crowd, within your typical metropolitan city environment. Unlike your standard nature macro photograph or typical New York skyline capture, Pelle’s collection of photos in “Selected People” (that started in 2010 and is yet on going) allows you to explore, imagine and interpret the different stories behind the overwhelming amount of activity taking place in every single image.
How did you get into photography?
A friend gave me a camera when I was thirteen. It’s sort of as simple as that. We were living in Florida and it must have been 1967or 1968. My parents were idealists and proto-hippies and kept me and my younger sister Amy out of school. My father figured that it was cheaper to live on a boat than buy a house. I spent my days, which mostly were nights, reading. I’d read anything, whether I understood it or not. Since I wasn’t in school, my parents figured I was bored. They must have encouraged their friend Armand to give me the camera, a cheap twin-lens reflex. From then on, that was kind of my thing. I lovedphotography magazines and learned a lot from Popular Photography and Modern Photography. I imagined I wanted to be a professional photographer, which it turned out, was ridiculous, being a nerd-introvert at heart. So getting that camera got me started.
Tell us a bit about your “Selected People” project.
I put the camera on a tripod and take hundredsof pictures over an hour or two. Then I compile them in Photoshop, taking care to never move anything. I just decide what to retain and what to omit. So that’s the technique. It lets me interpret the world and compress time, while remaining absolutely factual. It all happened exactly as I show it, just not at the same time.
I arrived at the title, “Selected People,” in a kind of complicated way. I was thinking about Walker Evans book of subway photos, “Many Are Chosen”. I liked that his camera, hidden under his coat, was a kind of a passive object, waiting to see what unfolded in front of it. It seemed a bit like what I was doing. So I thought I’d call my series Chosen People, which obviously didn’t work, although it’s worth mentioning here that I’m secularly Jewish. So I thought, Selected, which also reminded me of the standard title for a big publishing event for poets, Selected Poems. So Selected People it was.
There is a large sense of crowdedness and chaos in your photos. Is there a meaning or a message you wish to convey behind this?
Anxiety about overcrowding is certainly a legitimate feeling to draw from my work, but it’s not the only one. And it’s true that actual crowds (as opposed to the concept of global overcrowding) sometimes make me anxious. But I actually like crowds.
I like the sense of people out and about, milling around, especially. That’s why I often photograph tourists, who proceed at a leisurely pace, while residents of Boston, where most of the work was done, stride purposefully toward a goal. I’ve also noticed that even if a person is alone, he or she reacts to the people around them. My photos have the effect ofisolating people in time instead of space. So while my work might be about overcrowding, it’s also about being lonely when you’re with people. But the question was about chaos. And so, on a formal level, I have to admit that I’ve always been drawn to chaotic imagery, from Hieronymus Bosch to the over-complicated sensibility of the Baroque to overall action of Jackson Pollock. I’ve always wanted more, to pack in more life, more color, more people, more everything. Something about this urge explains my irritation with conventional photography, limited as it is to a single instant. A beautiful day — with it’s warm breeze, the smell of the ocean, and the warming sun — is completely unrecorded in the photo. Clearly, this is partly my incompetence as a conventional photographer. Coming up as a student in the seventies. I felt that the world had been photographed too much already, found as easily in reproduction as in original observation.
In a way, “Selected People”, is also a reaction to my frustration and irritation with conventional photography. I’ve always liked taking my time, and working with my hands. I like to make the kind of mistakes you can undo on a computer or redo in a studio. So, perhaps a long way around to explain why I’m drawn to chaos.
You have a unique style of photography. What do you mainly focus on, composition, colours, or the subjects of the photos?
Some of this was answered above. But, to summarize, I start with a random collection of people who happened to walk by when I was set up (for an hour or so, usually, andtwo-hundred to a thousand exposures go into each finished photo). I begin compiling the photo, flipping through over and over again. Then, I notice a theme or a pattern. And typically, it’s dominated by either composition (a chaotic composition, or perhaps people arranged in a circle), color (everyone in yellow or arranged in rainbow order), or by some human quality, a gesture (pointing, say, or staring). So the answer is all of the elements you asked about equally. However, when I set up for a photo, I look for a place with a simple background where I know there will be a flow of people who are not simply walking to their destinations. It’s better if they meander a bit.
This brings me to my next question. How do you edit your images?
I don’t edit in the normal way. I might produce only 25 or 30 of these photos a year. I finish about twice as many images as I release. So my real editing process is more like a painter’s. Some of the finished photos simply don’t work, and I don’t show them.
Is there a particular photo that is your favourite, or that sticks with you the most?
My favorite photo has always been “Government Center Steps (2009).” Even though it’s one of my older pictures, it kind of makes me giggle a little bit when I look at it. And the giggle is because it’s funny, but also, somehow, it makes me a little nervous, too.
My other favorite photo is a very new one. This is the first time I’ve showed it. It’s called “Congress Street(2017).” When I was taking the pictures, I certainly didn’t notice that so many men dressed and looked alike. This picture gives me the same nervous giggle.
To you, what is the best thing about Brooklyn, having being born and raised there?
Aha! Well, I’m glad that I’m famous enough that there is a misconception about me. I was born there and only lived there until I was four. My youth was spent in Swampscott, Massachusetts, on the coast, north of Boston. Also the hometown of Nan Goldin! (We were also classmates at the Museum School.) But to answer your question, the best thing about being born in Brooklyn is being able to brag about what was once a liability, when coming from the boroughs was an embarrassment. Now (and for years) I live in Brookline, Massachusetts. A million miles away in cool, but separated only by two little letters!
Be sure to check out more of Pelle’s work through his website.