Even if you have attended any kind of sports game in the Massachusetts area recently, chances are you probably haven’t spotted the photographer Pelle Cass. His images, on the other hand, would be pretty difficult to overlook.
Over the past few years, Pelle has been making work for an ongoing series, Crowded Fields, composing images which see your average diving competition, hockey game or tennis match repeating until they fill his frame with frenzy. Describing the project as “the sports department” of his wider street photography portfolio, Pelle’s practice sees him arranging photographs that have “dozens of moments instead of just the one”.
And while Pelle continues to use this technique in other situations – a park or sidewalk, for instance – it’s sports where his work feels the most jarring for the viewer, shifting what you think you know about sports photography. It’s also a situation where most of the parameters Pelle would need are already set up. The players “move all around a defined space”, there’s “always a perfect perch to place my camera on” and, most importantly, he can nestle within a crowd and become invisible. “I wouldn’t stand out or be asked to leave because everyone takes pictures of sports, and hobbyists and pros even use tripods,” he explains.
On the first viewing of Pelle’s photography, we were convinced he was just some Photoshop master, a dab hand with a lasso tool that made us think, just for a second, “hold on, is this real?” There’s subtle trickery used in his photographs, causing the viewer to double take, rather than just automatically assume they’re collages. After admitting to him we were zooming in and out of his portfolio to crack the code, the photographer suggests that his work has this effect “because what I do is completely real, even though it involves tricks”.
You see, in Pelle’s work “each person is in their exact spot”, he tells us, “I never move anything”. To make his work, the photographer will head to a sports event – he usually looks up the calendars of nearby universities such as Harvard, Boston or MIT – places his camera on a tripod and takes up to a thousand pictures. Then he’ll head home, and “compile selected figures into a final photograph that is kind of a still time-lapse,” he describes. “I change nothing – not a pixel – only select what to keep and what to omit. It all happened just as you see it, just not at the same time.”
As simple as this sounds, Pelle’s technique isn’t without its difficulties but sounds like a sadistically satisfying creative pursuit as it takes 40 hours for a typical composition. “The main trick is when people overlap, I have to trim around them very carefully in Photoshop,” he continues. “I think I know when to let things get a little blurry or indistinct when people overlap since all photos have areas where they tend to break down. And all photos, no matter how high the resolution, break down at some point and become blobby approximations of the kind realist painters will recognise. So, understanding this helps me keep the photos looking ‘real’ or, more precisely, keeps them looking believably photographic. Commercial photos are often overworked and you get that perfect airbrushed look that seems closer to a rendering. They use Photoshop to perfect the image. I use Photoshop to increase the imperfections.”
Considering the project has been going for a few years now, and will continue to, Pelle hopes audiences “see time in a new way” after spending time with his photographs. Through communicating “a sense of chaos, catastrophe, order and ecstasy”, the photographer’s work isn’t too different from the memory of a sports game either.
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