Pelle Cass is a photographer from Brookline, MA. His work is in the collections of the Fogg Art Museum, the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Polaroid Collection, the DeCordova Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He has published in Wired Raw File, Gizmodo, the Washington Post, Vice’s The Creators Project, and others. Honors include three Yaddo residencies, a finalist award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and a grant from the Artist’s Resource Trust. Books include contributions to PhotoViz (Gestalten, 2016) and a chapter discussing his work in Deleuze and the City (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
How did you get interested in photography?
I first got interested in photography because a family friend gave me a camera and a couple of developing trays. I was thirteen. Mostly, I liked handling the camera, a Yashica A, and clicking the shutter over and over. I also liked how the little prints I made curled up into little gray tubes when they dried. A little later, when I was sixteen or so, I became interested in photographs in addition to cameras. Someone gave me a Cartier-Bresson book, and I remember reading in the introduction, I think, that the subjects of his photos would see nothing special in the images. I wasn’t sure I saw anything, either. But I pored over that book countless times until the binding started disintegrating and the pages started falling out.
Do you have an educational artistic background?
My mother was an artist. She studied at the Art Students League in New York where Hans Hofmann taught. She painted and drew in a typical Modernist style, reminiscent of Picasso. We debated a lot in my teen years about whether photography was art. I went to art four different undergrad art schools and only got a degree some twenty years after my freshman year. It was my way of meeting and learning a little bit from each of a wide range of photo teachers. It certainly was more of light apprenticeship than an education. I probably learned most from the non-art classes I was forced occasionally to take: Linguistics, English, etc.
Where do you get your creative inspiration from? Is there any other artist or photographer who inspired your art?
I get a portion of my creative inspiration from anger, pique, and competition. In other words, I sometimes sort of avoid working until I see a friend or acquaintance having a show, or doing some interesting work, or winning a prize. It makes me feel like I’m wasting my time unless I’m working, since I’d rather drink coffee, lie in bed, and read. Or maybe go to a movie. On a more positive note, just looking at the world is kind of inspiring, if I’m in the right mood. Just being downtown and looking at all the people is enough.
I guess the biggest influence on me has been what was in the air in the seventies when I went (mostly) to art school: the street photography of Frank, Friedlander, Winogrand, and Arbus. They were absolutely unavoidable and, at the time, and I kind of hated their work. I went into the studio to create little sculptural tableaux to avoid their subject matter and what I felt was a stuffy reverence for photography. It was a great surprise to me to wind up doing a version of street photography when I started doing Selected People in 2008.
How much preparation do you put into taking a photograph or series of photographs? Do you have any preferences regarding cameras and format?
In one sense, I’ve spent my whole life preparing for each photograph or series by looking at a lot of art, reading a lot, listening to music, going to movies, keeping up with the news, etc. I guess getting involved in any particular project starts kind of suddenly. I may noodle around producing piles of mediocre work until I get one image that clicks. Then I try to do it again, but a little differently each time, until I have enough images for a show or whatever.
I have no real preferences in cameras or formats. It’s more a matter of getting the best camera I can afford on a limited budget. I should say that I prefer digital cameras.
Can you talk a bit about your approach to the work? What did you want your images to capture?
In my Selected People series, I wait for the world to unfold in front of my camera. I never know what is going to happen when I set up for a photo. (I set up my camera on a tripod and take hundreds of photos, then compile them back in the studio.) Granted, the occurrences are small, but I’m always surprised by what happens in the course of an hour or so.
I guess I want my images to capture some of the texture of everyday life, the stuff you’d ignore or not notice. I also want to capture a sense of chaos that I think is maybe the essence of the world, a place where everything and anything is happening at any given moment somewhere. But I’m also interested in the way the human mind strives to bring order to whatever it sees. I try to exaggerate both.
Where is your photography going? What are you currently working on and do you have any photographic plans for future?
I’ve gotten the most attention for Selected People, and I plan to continue the series by doing several new images every year, especially in the summer when Boston fills its squares and parks with tourists and visitors from all over. But, as I mentioned, I’ve always done studio work, too, and plan to keep doing it. I envy photographers who get interested in a political or social issue and pursue it photographically. But I’m an introvert, I guess, and the ideas tend to come from mulling things over and experimenting rather than discovering things out in the real world. So my plans for the future to keep an open mind, to keep reading and developing new interests and, mostly, to keep experimenting with photography.
What are your three favourite photography books?
This is sad, but I don’t have have three current favorite photography books. I actually like going to exhibitions better. The big Cindy Sherman show a MOMA in New York a few years ago and the Andreas Gursky show there also in the late 90s stand out in my mind. And I just saw a show of the Lodz ghetto photographs of Henryk Ross at the MFA Boston that I liked a lot, so that makes three.
What do you do besides photography?
I’ve a had a variety of dull jobs that pay the rent (advice to young artists: Stay in school! Study something you like that you can fall back on!). I am also a normal human being who eats and sleeps and does all the regular things. I play as much tennis as I can and I read as much as I can.