In the middle of a busy day in Boston, the city seems to swirl with chaotic activity. But, if you sit in one place long enough, you’ll start to see patterns emerge—of color, shape, and rhythm—as absorbed pedestrians trace each other’s paths.
Photographer Pelle Cass has created an innovative series of images called “Selected People,” which reveals these hidden patterns in Boston life. He takes photographs in a public place and then artfully compresses elements from them together, creating the disorienting feeling of time and people’s lives stacked upon each other.
Cass, 58, typically shoots his photographs on his lunch break from his job as a graphic designer. He positions his tripod in a public space, like the Boston Public Garden or the Prudential Supermarket, and takes 200-300 pictures in the span of about an hour. Sometimes he knows what he’s looking for, but just as often he’ll only begin to recognize the quirks and patterns in the images later, when he goes through them in Photoshop.
The types of patterns Cass finds are diverse. This image, constructed from a series of photographs taken at Quincy Market in the spring of 2012, transforms a jumbled crowd of pedestrians into concentric arcs. Cass selected people who had at least one foot inside one of the brick circles. Each person appears in the composite image in the exact location they appeared in the original photographs, which keeps the light and shading accurate to real life, and makes it look like the people were together in these exact positions at the same time.
In this image, made from photographs taken at the Esplanade, Cass uses the same technique to make it look as though people had randomly ended up walking according to where their shirt colors fall in the visual spectrum. Towards the lower-left corner, you’ll also notice another element common to Cass’s compositions. The man in the long-sleeved tan shirt is walking in the opposite direction of a runner in a yellow shirt, which disrupts the smooth flow of pedestrians. Cass calls these details, “offbeats,” and they serve almost as a wink from within the images themselves, telling you that what you’re seeing isn’t actually real. (Another way to think of these “offbeats,” is, per Morpheus, as “glitches in the Matrix.”)
In an interview, Cass, whose work is supported by a grant from the Artist's Resource Trust of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, explains that he got the idea for “Selected People” while looking out his apartment window.
“I was just looking out my window and wondering what has happened on that little patch of sidewalk,” he says. “I realized that over the years it was probably almost totally filled with people. I realized I could take pictures of portions of that.”
It takes Cass 10-20 hours to pull together each of his images. He describes his process as similar to the way a painter works, as he feels his way towards a selection of images and colors that come together in the right way. Many of his images are also directly inspired by paintings. He has consciously modeled some of his images on the rhythms found in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. And, this image of people playing football in Cypress Field in Brookline, follows the composition of "Rape of the Sabine Women," which is also pictured below, by the 17th century French painter Nicolas Poussin.
Cass’s work is visually delightful—fun, colorful, and satisfyingly ordered. But if you look long enough, it’s disturbing, too, as though you’ve fallen into a room of incredibly attractive people who, you slowly realize, are all clones of each other.
Image of "Rape of the Sabine Women" by Nicolas Poussin courtesy of Wiki Paintings.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.