Fever Pitch: The Photographer Pelle Cass in Motion
A Study of Multiplicity in Stunning Time-Lapse Imagery
- Text: A. S. Hamrah
- Photography: Pelle Cass
SSENSE and Victory Journal team up on five stories related to style in sport.
The anarchic jumble of athletes in motion in the sports photography of Pelle Cass is real. It is not staged. But it isn’t the same reality we see when we’re watching a game, a competition, or a meet.
That’s because in Cass’ pictures, everything is happening at the same time, in the same place. In the staged photographs of artists like Gregory Crewdson or Alex Prager, people are marshaled like movie extras into compositions that are like a single film frame—a special, fortuitous frame that perfectly represents a film that does not exist.
In Cass’ photos, all the frames are on top of each other, all at once. Everything exists. All the events that could possibly happen in one scene are happening simultaneously, out of order. No singular moment presides. Instead, there is a spray of out-of-sequence instants, detached from a linear timeline.
Cass’ style is not to deploy people and freeze them in place, but to capture them unexpectedly, identify where they were, mark that spot with them in it, and move on. In the jumble of digital images that is our world now, Cass has done something that didn’t quite seem possible: he has invented a new kind of sports photography that describes real experience in a previously unseen but instantly recognizable way. He has done it with the barest of means: a fixed camera position from which he takes hundreds of digital photographs, and Photoshop, which he learned in one adult education class.
The crowded, Where’s Waldo? aspect of Cass’ work draws viewers in, but it’s deceptive. There is no central figure in a Cass photograph. There is no particular character to find. Take, for instance, the blonde diver in the Marine Serre bodysuit in the photos Cass created from the thousands of pictures he took last August at the US Masters Diving Nationals in Orange County, California. She stands out because of her unique swimsuit, but she is one figure among two dozen others, most of whom, like her, are repeated in the image several times.
A dive is a sequential event. It happens in phases: approach, flight, position, entry, and splash. In Cass’ photos of this event, we see different stages of a dive in different sections of the photograph. The diver occupies the frame from two or more of her dives at the same time, at different positions in her flight, almost next to herself, but separated by other divers in various stages of their own dives. Her hair—wet then dry—indicates the non-sequentiality of her actions in the photo.
Cass talks about what he got from Eadweard Muybridge. The 19th-century British-American photographer took pictures of horses trotting in sequence to prove that their hooves all left the ground at the same time at some point as they galloped. In Cass’ photographs, sequentiality and ground have become detached. His subjects fly off in all directions, competing for space.
The complex, crowded field of play in a Pelle Cass photograph can be tangled and confusing, as bodies in motion block other bodies, obscuring the action. It breaks the cardinal rule of sports photography, which aims to present clear, blink-of-an-eye moments that are instantly get-able and easy to grasp. The goal of the basic sports photograph is to encapsulate an exact moment of victory or defeat—only thrill or agony are allowed. In a Cass photo, many more things are happening. He does not render the exact moment of the dunk, the catch, or the goal because he is not going for timelessness, but rather motion in time. He eliminates the sense of inevitability that typical sports photography implies, replacing it with something uncertain, without guarantees. It’s more like watching sports as they happen than finding out who won.
When I lived in Boston a long time ago, I worked for two seasons as a football cinematographer for college and high school teams. I carried a large, hand-cranked Bolex 16mm camera and a wooden tripod to football fields throughout New England, where I set up my sticks with the Bolex on top, its large Mickey Mouse-eared film magazine attached. Like Cass, I worked from a fixed position above the crowd on a platform, while below me coaches and the student athletes’ parents yelled and swore at their boys while cheerleaders bounced and chanted. It was disorienting, all this movement around me, and it made me understand how Busby Berkeley got the idea for the overhead dance sequences in his 1930s movie musicals.
My then-roommate was a news photographer who spent a lot of his working life at professional sports stadiums, running around the perimeter of the action during games, taking pictures of players on the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins. My work and his covered the same subject, but we were at polar opposite ends of the way sports is recorded for posterity. I made training films, he covered news. In the film I shot, it was important that the numbers on the backs of the players’ jerseys were visible in the footage—all the players, all at once. For my roommate that was not a consideration. What mattered was capturing one moment that summed up the game.
“I want the chaos, and the real world, to be in there,” Cass told me this summer when we spoke at his house in Brookline, Massachusetts. “People use Photoshop for tidying up,” he explained, “but I want to make a mess.” One curator called his work “a digital shitstorm.” Cass thinks of his photography “as depicting a kind of catastrophe, people running around in a kind of panic.”
It’s not glory and winning he’s trying to depict, but “collisions without wincing,” and the tensions between exuberance and violence, optimism and fright. When he’s putting together a photograph, he looks for details and conflicts, thinking to himself, “That’s gonna be confusing, that might be nice.”
Cass goes to sporting events to take pictures with a series of self-imposed rules in mind. First, he usually chooses college sports to photograph because there are a lot of colleges near where he lives in Boston. No one really cares if he’s there, and he usually doesn’t need special permission to take photos. Also, he doesn’t drive. When he photographed hockey at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he took the bus. Often, at college games, people don’t notice him at all. He works from one camera position, using a Canon 5D Mark IV on a tripod with a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens, which he describes as “the cheapest.” “I’m not an equipment person,” he says. He tries to start with an empty frame, then takes more and more photos as things start to happen, as spectators show up and the athletes take the field or the court. Once the competition begins, Cass takes hundreds, often thousands of photos. When he gets home he uploads these to his computer, working in front of a monitor at a small desk next to the front door of his house, where books occupy more space than photo equipment. (He’s married to the fiction writer Margaret Holmes.) It takes him 40 to 80 hours—about two weeks of solid work—to complete a picture. The farther back the photo is from the action, the longer it takes. When he first started making his sports photos, he had a sense that he was doing something new, because as he was making them he felt they were changing his consciousness somehow, but he did not anticipate that people would like them for their subject matter instead of for their technique, movement, and unexpected repetitions. Cass prints his photos very large, on rag paper, not on photo stock, to emphasize their scale and composition. The digital vs. film divide is tiresome to him, he says. “Photographers who are so prideful about it bug me.” Cass developed his technique over many years, going through many subjects and styles. He made photographs of pins, which bear an uncanny resemblance to his current work, and then did street scenes with people in crosswalks and in parks. In art school in the 1970s, he became annoyed with street photography of the Garry Winogrand variety and sought to counter it in his own work. It takes a lot of nerve and confidence for street photographers to get in people’s faces in public. That kind of boldness is something Cass says he lacks. He doesn’t want to annoy people (except for maybe street photographers). For Cass, the camera should do all the work. He doesn’t want to “dance and prance” around with it. He says he’d like to photograph dancers, actors, and fashion models, too, as long as he can avoid the same dancing and prancing with them.
Cass has come to understand that his weird, unique photographs are an example of popular art. “They have something for everyone,” he says. Sports fans come up to him after they’ve seen one to announce to him “Dude, that’s sick!” If he has rejected the mainstream of 20th century photography as represented by Winogrand, it was because his influences come more from painting, anyway. Two subjects from art history interest him most: war and heaven, which repel and attract him, and which he filters through the lens of later abstractionists. Cass has wedded the crowded heavens of the 18th century Venetian master Tiepolo—with their densely-populated, cloud-dwelling gods, goddesses, angels, and cherubs—to the explosive shock of Picasso’s Guernica, the late cubism of which severs limbs, heads, and torsos into screams of individual destruction. In Cass’ sports photographs, the ornate paintings of the 17th-century French Baroque master Nicolas Poussin, with their crowds of warring figures at battle in open squares, set against the sky, meet Jackson Pollock’s vast fields of colorful drip. For Cass, sports allegorizes war and heaven in kinetic compositions snatched from reality, where everything is acting on everything else in violent competition. Cass finds men’s football and lacrosse to be a little vicious, and his hockey photographs can’t help but remind viewers of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow. The horror of Bruegel’s Triumph of Death is somewhere under the surface of Cass' photos, along with Poussin’s Sabine women. The circles and lines of balls, paddles, and poles fill half of Cass’ mural-like photos, while conflict rages among his athletic figures beneath and around these objects of sport. He says that the numbers on the jerseys create problems for him. He uses the same players throughout one photograph, but he doesn’t want the same number repeated in the visual field over and over. By putting all the moments of one game together, he has found a way to get past the individual athlete and honor the whole team, the whole activity and concept of sport as a human activity. We see how much life is in these spaces. So much action is revealed in the way Cass breaks down time. But there’s so much claustrophobia and chaos, too—so much strain and violence along with the grace. Cass says the technique he arrived at to get all this into his photographs doesn’t matter. “The world is mysterious and time is mysterious,” he says. “Not Photoshop.”
A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1 magazine. A collection of his work, The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018, has recently been published.
- Text: A. S. Hamrah
- Photography: Pelle Cass
- Location: Marguerite Aquatics Center, City of Mission Viejo
- Production: Jezebel Leblanc-Thouin
- Production Assistant: Stephanie Bayan
- Special Thanks To: USA Masters Diving, Mission Viejo Nadadores, Vice Chair USA Masters Diving / Lisa Meller
- Collaborators: Victory Journal / Aaron Amaro, Chris Isenberg, Kate Perkins, Nathaniel Friedman, Shane Lyons, Tim Young
- Models: David L Acosta, Karen Alderman, Kim Alderman, Luis E Bahamon, Eric M Bomberger, Maryhelen Bronson, Joan M Chalkley, Robert M Chandler, Ibone A De Belausteguigoitia, Matt Dehaven, Gregory J Derevianko, Elizabeth A Dinello, Kathy Diringer, Gerard T Dunn, Madonna Fernandez-Frackelton, Steve J Figg, Patrick French, Tabitha A Fritz, Geoffrey P Geis, Brian D Gilbert, Sara J Gilliland, Jordan M Gotro, Felix Grossman, Michael B HA, Nick Hastie, Mark A Hearn, Gail M Heaslip, Andrew Helmich, Lori J Hillman, Alan T Hungerschafer, Joanne A Hutlet, Nancy Janik, Jo-Ann D Johnson, Ron M Kontura, Alexander Lapidus, Kevin T Lynch, Carol J Mackela, Kara Macwilliam, Chay N Malvasio, Jennifer L Mangum, Barbara M Martin, Don McAlister, George S McGann, Michael F Mcgowan, Lisa Meller, Ava Miller, Cole A Miller, Graham Miller, Melanie J Milone, Lisa A Mitrani, Nancy Morris, Logan J Pearsall, Richard J Pennavaria, Casey Pepe, Lindsay Pierce, Laurel L Plewe, Sean Proctor, Sheila Raives, Catherine A Rendell Green, Edward L Richmond, Peter Rieman, Courtney N Rudolph, Ryder Sammons, Lea K Schmeisser, Catherine J Schmittling, Janet L Schultze, Janelle P Sherako, Robert W Sherman, Rebecca Sibberson, Garrett Sisley, Gerard A Smith, Jeffrey Stabile Jr, Edward Stevens, Kelsey A Stillinger, Andy O Stortroen, Viki Tamaradze, John B Terry, Mark A Timko, James P Whalen, Luke T Winkler, Kelly Winterbottom
- Date: November 15, 2019