It was the editor of a magazine who, unwittingly, led Pelle Cass to start creating his hyper-real, hyper-busy sports photographs. “The key moment was when a publication commissioned me to photograph the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. The editor insisted that I keep it pure basketball. I wanted to include all sorts of random stuff—hot dog vendors, cheerleaders, coaches—that came on to the court. But he kept the focus on action and movement. And he was right! It took me a couple of years to start doing sports full time in 2018. But after that, I kept the focus on the movement and the athletes.”
Cass started out photographing what he saw on the streets—shots he called Selected People. However, as he is keen to point out: “I see myself as a seeker and a tinkerer and not so much a street photographer. I have a feeling in me—an ecstatic chaos—that I look for different ways to show.” His sports pieces grew out of this street work, which is where he began using a composite technique for the pictures that he calls “still time-lapse.”
I leave each figure in its real, original place in the scene… That way, I can say that everything in my strange and confusing pictures is true and real
“Dozens and even hundreds of moments add up to more information and truth than a conventional photo can convey with its single instant,” he says. Whether he is depicting a basketball court teeming with players, or a pool overfilled with thrashing bodies, the tried-and-tested Pelle Cass approach is to place a camera on a tripod and “take thousands of pictures over an hour or two.”
He selects the most interesting figures and builds the composition in Photoshop. “I start with a blank scene, then it’s a bit like slow-motion Tetris, filling up the space. I leave each figure in its real, original place in the scene, which is my only rule. That way, I can say that everything in my strange and confusing pictures is true and real.”
One of these Crowded Fields creations can take weeks to complete. “It takes me anywhere from eight hours for a simple picture to 80 hours for the most complicated one. Sometimes I’ll do multiple versions and decide later which is best, and that can make the whole thing take longer. It’s a staggering amount of work for a photographer but completely routine for a painter,” Cass explains.
I see myself as a seeker and a tinkerer and not so much a street photographer. I have a feeling in me—an ecstatic chaos—that I look for different ways to show
Based in Brookline, Massachusetts, Cass has taken photographs since childhood (“I had a Kodak Brownie box camera—a far cry from an iPhone”) and was given his first serious camera, a twin-lens reflex Yashica, when he was 12. Formally trained at “two art schools and two universities,” he graduated in fine art photography and cites Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus as influences, along with artists Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.
“I like experimenting and trying out different things, making them complicated, then simplifying,” he says of his practice. Recently, he has been doing more commission work. “It’s been really interesting to photograph fashion,” he says. “I’d like to photograph dancers, which I’ve tried once, and maybe actors. But it would still be people moving.”
Cass released a limited-edition book (Just an Idea by Pelle Cass) in December 2021. This fall, he will take part in a group show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and he has a trip to Dubai in the pipeline, though he does admit that he “would also like to do nothing for a few months and see if I can think of any new projects or ideas.”
Banner image: Shot over an entire game, players seem to scramble to reach dozens of balls in Dartmouth Men’s Basketball (2019) by Pelle Cass