Photographer, Pelle Cass, on the Technical Process Behind His Mesmerising 'Crowded Fields'
Hailing from Massachusetts, Pelle Cass is an award-winning photographer. Recently, Pelle has been making work for an ongoing series, Crowded Fields, which uses incredible time-lapse techniques to create images that capture the chaos of sporting events from around the world. His mesmerising composite photographs subvert the typical athletic affair and put the crowds in the fields, rather than in the stands. What’s most extraordinary is that Pelle does not altar, crop, or edit the figures in his photographs; he simply adds and subtracts. We were keen to find out more from Pelle about the technical process behind his jarring time-lapse images and where he finds reward in his creative work.
Pelle, how did your project ‘Crowded Fields’ write itself? Can you tell us a little bit about the spark and inspiration behind this project?
I was commissioned to do a photograph of an NBA team a few years ago. That was my first sports photo - a subject I looked down on a bit before. It turned out well but I sort of forgot about it. Then recently I had some extra time on my hands. Ordinarily, if I've a bit of extra time on my hands I go out and play tennis or basketball. But on this occasion I remembered the Atlanta Hawks photo and realised that I could go out to some of the local colleges in Boston and take pictures of the many sporting events around town.
Talk to us about the technical process behind your photographs. How much planning goes into each image and how long does one usually take to create?
The planning starts with checking all the local sports calendars put out by college athletic departments. Then, if I haven’t been there before, I'll try to see if I can do an image search so that I can get an idea of what the stadium or field is like. If I’m thinking about an indoor event, I also like to find an image that still has the exposure data attached to it so I can see if the lighting is good. Also, I like to have a high vantage point, so I look for that. It’s hard to get what I want from ground level.
When I get to the venue I’ll usually walk around indecisively, trying to imagine what the photo will look like from here or there. Finally, I just have to pick a spot and stick with it, which is sometimes a fraught decision. I have to hope that enough players will go where I’ve pointed my camera. I put my camera on a tripod and I snap between one to four thousand photos. The more the better, believe it or not. That way, I can usually find a figure doing what I want him/her to do in just the position I want it. I never move a figure from its original position. My work shows everything exactly the way it happened. It just didn’t all happen at once.
"Rather than style, I believe it may be a greater advantage to have a big personality - the kind people really like - and some talent to back it up."
When I’m back at home, I create a “blank” photo. I try to find as empty a view as I can, and I’ll patch together a few frames to do it. Again, I never retouch or take things out. It’s part of my early schooling, which was heavily about street photography. And also what I like is how photography conveys real facts. So I flip through the thousands of pictures and just start adding the most interesting figures in the most expressive poses. Eventually a theme or a pattern emerges, but it’s a mess for many days.
When do you see an image as being ‘ﬁnished’?
I like to cram in as much as I can into a photograph, and there’s no such thing as too much. But I try to have very rhythmic images, and when that starts to become indistinct, and the composition starts to look worse, that’s when I know to stop. I usually go too far and then take out a few figures.
"I never move a figure from its original position. My work shows everything exactly the way it happened. It just didn’t all happen at once."
What’s your favourite part of the process? Where do you ﬁnd fulﬁlment and reward in your work?
I like the composing of the image the best. I like the moment when I realise that I had no idea that this sport would look this way. Actually going to events is fun for an intense period of only about ten minutes. Then I’m just standing there for a couple of hours, paying close attention to the field but not really watching the game. It’s actually a little boring and a little stressful.
As for fulfilment and reward, that’s quite a question! On a couple of surface levels; it keeps me busy and I enjoy the “likes,” the praise and attention. But I don’t think of myself as being particularly fulfilled and you’d have to be insane to be satisfied with the rewards of being an artist, both remuneratively and by measures of praise. But I keep doing it and always have. It’s utterly grandiose, but I would feel fulfilled if I thought I made a serious contribution to the culture. Otherwise, I did it because I like to do it and do it because I’m good at it, and do it because I’ve always done it, and I’ve always done it because... etcetera.
What parts are most challenging for you?
On the micro level it’s actually taking the pictures and on the macro level it’s challenging being an artist in a time when it’s hard to make a living and a life in art.
"I gave up in the sense that I knew that I would never
network my way to success in museums or galleries or anywhere else. The only chance I had left was to make the work itself un-ignorable."
What’s your favourite image from the entire project? And why?
It changes. A lot of the time my favourite is the one that’s most useful to me. In other words, the image that’s leading me toward doing new work, to expand, or perfect an idea. My softball image for example. I like how strange it is, how the balls seem to be a data visualisation and a mysterious act of levitation at the same time. So it’s my favourite at the minute because I’d like try something like it again, but a little different.
Speaking in more general terms, the photography industry is very competitive. Have there been moments when you felt like you weren’t good enough? How do you break through these moments of self-doubt?
I actually gave up on my career a couple of years ago. I’d been laid off from a couple of art-related day jobs. I was collecting unemployment and decided to just do the work and not worry about good, bad, success, or failure. I genuinely didn’t care. Self-promotion just never worked for me, and it was time to admit it. I gave up in the sense that I knew that I would never network my way to success in museums or galleries or anywhere else. The only chance I had left was to make the work itself un-ignorable. I knew I couldn’t control that even a little. All I could do was try.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to succeed in a creative industry? Do you believe having a certain ‘style’ to your name has an advantage?
Rather than style, I believe it may be a greater advantage to have a big personality - the kind people really like - and some talent to back it up.
Finally, as our name suggests, here at Mantra we’re curious about what keeps our favourite creatives driven and pushing forward. What’s your personal mantra, Pelle?
Check out Pelle's work here.