Pelle Cass
Photo by Pelle Cass

Pelle Cass: “I never fabricate”

Short Profile

Name: Pelle Cass
DOB: 1954
Place of birth: Brooklyn, New York, United States
Occupation: Photographer

Mr. Cass, your unique style of time-lapse photography results in exciting, lively, and busy tableaus. Is the photo-taking process equally as exciting?

No, in general, my photo-taking process is very boring. I'm just standing there. Even my recent New York Magazine shoot was boring in its own way, because I was standing up on the roof of a building, above everybody with just a couple people helping me! The most interesting thing I do in a day is really what I get out through photoshopping, when I take all the images I’ve shot and superimpose them to create one photo. When it starts to come together as something, that’s when it gets interesting. My photos honestly look like garbage at first — like most projects when you start them, they aren't anything. It's terrible. And then all of a sudden, it starts to gel. And that's always the most important and interesting part of my day.

That particular shoot was certainly more structured than the street photography you’re known for, where you photograph everyday people walking across the frame and then photoshop them together to make one photo.

Oh, yes. I've come to think of what happens out in front of the camera as a kind of drawing, things are moving in the space and I'm recording these shapes that people are making. Lately I've also been doing shoots with objects or balls that I toss, and it really feels like I'm letting the objects draw in space! In the case of the New York Magazine cover, we had 72 famous people coming in to do the shoot, so there was a lot of scheduling, but that was handled by the magazine’s team. They also choreographed a few paths that they could walk. It was interesting to have that grid set out because if it had been up to me, I would have just let people wander around.

“I’m recording exactly what is in front of me. I try to stick to that. I’m only ever fabricating in front of the camera — behind the camera, I never fabricate.”

That’s how it works with your street photography, right? You’re taking an almost photojournalistic approach because you aren’t doing anything to make what’s happening in front of the camera more special or exciting.

The funny thing is that this idea of “something exciting” is all about context. Maybe something is offbeat in a context where everything else is boring, it’s a juxtaposition. Like all contemporary art, it’s a kind of strategy to pick something random, and then it becomes interesting just because you picked it. For example, I was photographing in Boston, and I was standing near the dullest government building. In fact, it's so dull, it's called Government Center. (Laughs) This was in the morning when people were coming to work, streaming into this building from all over the place. When I started to put the picture together, I noticed there was a predominant theme, and it was people wearing light blue shirts and dark or khaki trousers. Dressed almost identically, carrying the same sorts of briefcases; they all looked alike. That made the photo special, but at the time, I didn’t even see it.

I guess it kind of changes the definition of what exciting means.

Yeah, it’s changing the context and the expectation. I like to think about the example of Andy Warhol’s film Sleep, where it’s just somebody sleeping, there are no events in the film, but when the person twitches, it becomes exciting! These tiny things become significant.

Where do sports events fall on that spectrum? From your final photos, it looks almost overwhelmingly exciting.

Sports games are filled with peaks and valleys. They’re kind of an artificial narrative, and my work completely fractures any narrative. In my photos, you can't tell that anybody's winning or losing, I explicitly want to mess up the story, the sequences are presented completely out of order, all at the same time. So it does look exciting, but it's none of it's a peak. In fact, when I’m watching it, it’s mostly boredom, it’s not really fun for me to watch college lacrosse or something.

Apparently you have several rules for your photography, including one that dictates that you don’t alter any of the subjects or objects. You keep it completely true to what happens in front of the lens.

It's still my absolute rule! I never move anything, even in my photos of objects where I’m tossing them or shoots that are commissioned, if somebody says this handbag might look better over there, I won’t move it. I’m recording exactly what is in front of me, and that is then superimposed. I try to stick to that. In the context of those object shoots or ones for magazines, I'm only fabricating in front of the camera — behind the camera, I never fabricate.

Do you still consider the pre-planned shoots or commissioned work to be honest or truthful in the way your street photography is?

Yes, but it’s interesting because it's a real record of something that is fabricated, kind of like a documentary movie about a stage play! It is still a truthful record of a stage play. A fashion shoot is all false because the models are there wearing this coordinated color or clothing, that part is pretend. But the recordings and photos I make are real, it’s a truthful account of that moment.

The photographer Martin Schoeller says that there’s actually no such thing as a completely truthful photo because the photographer’s point of view is always in there somehow. It can never be totally objective.

Sure, that’s correct I guess, but my rebuttal to that is: your still photograph distorts reality much more than mine does, because you've decided that out of all the infinite moments you witnessed in one hour, you pick that one. Whereas I'm showing you as many moments as I can fit in, so there's a little bit more truth in the image I create, there’s a little more accumulated truth in one of my pictures than perhaps a portrait which you’ve decided is symbolic or representative or emotional.

How did you first transition from those kinds of taking regular still images to finding your current style?

I worked for a while as a graphic designer and I had to learn a little photoshop! Then one night I was just looking out my window and wondering what happened out there, just the way you sometimes do, looking outside at a quiet spring moment. Nothing special was happening at the time, but you just imagine all the things that might have happened there, or things that were still to come. I thought it might be nice to set up a camera and just capture some of that. It was a very discrete moment, I hadn't been thinking about doing it, I just looked out there and thought, “Oh, I could do it.” And then the next day, I tried it.

And was the magic there right away in the photos?

No, I'm not sure they were good right away. But they were busy! Before that, I was taking photos in the studio, taking portraits or walking around taking photos on the street but I was terrible at it! Especially because I was never interested in the most dramatic moment or the things that are really visceral at the time. And even once I did find a moment to take the photo, it always disappointed me! It’s like taking a picture of the moon, you end up with this white dot with no features on it. That’s what regular conventional photography is like to me, everything was like taking pictures of the moon. I always wanted more, and that’s still what I’m looking for today, I’m interested in a kind of composition that is almost impossibly exciting. I’ve spent my whole life trying to express that.