Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Pelle Cass: What Was He Thinking?

Pelle Cass is a photographer based in Brookline, MA. An exhibition of his Strangers series will be shown at Gallery Kayafas in Boston, October 19 - November 24, 2012, with reception and talk on October 25, 6-8 pm. 

A lot of my projects start with irritation. In this case, I was annoyed at portraiture itself, if that's possible. Things I was tired of: psychological acuity, expressions of personality, big deadpan faces (although I was also fascinated), identity. I thought it would be funny to eliminate psychology and personality (the people in my pictures are barely recognizable as themselves), and focus only on skin. I did want the pictures to be expressive, but in a new way, if possible. All these pictures were done by taking many close ups, and blending the fragments together to make a new face, distortions of anatomy, scale, focus, and perspective preserved.


This is the first one I did in 2008. It was the result of simple curiosity. It's also of me, although I've shown it to many people who did not notice until I pointed it out. Maybe they were being polite about my hideousness. I put my little point and shoot camera on a tripod and swiveled the screen around so I could focus and compose. I'd seen David Hockney's photocollages, of course, and was interested in the idea that multiple exposures could mean more and deeper looking. But I didn't want to repeat Hockney, and I preferred a photograph to look like a photograph from a single point of view. This picture sat around for a couple of years before I continued the series. 


I was lucky enough to go to Yaddo in 2010, an artist's residency in Saratoga Springs, NY. An incredible place. I got more ideas and images in a month there than in two years at home. I decided to ask the other residents--writers, artists, and composers--to pose. (I don't identify the people except by their initials because cluing the viewer into their identity is contrary to the spirit of the project. Also, the pictures make these fantastic people look ugly, which they emphatically were not.) I was a little nervous with I____. I knew I'd have to lean over and stick my camera a few inches from his face. It was January and around 20 degrees. The it was cloudy and the light was diffuse and weak. I took about a hundred pictures. It went fine, but I was nervous when I showed the more or less finished picture to him. It's pretty forceful, like an ugly Easter Island oracle. He didn't seem to mind, but I still felt a little guilty. 


This is another Yaddo resident who was generous enough to sit for me. I brought a stool out so P___ could sit in front of a construction trailer--you can see the blue of it's signage in the background. P___ is very mild in appearance and friendly in demeanor, contrary to the picture you see. The sitting took about twenty minutes. When putting the fragments back together, I generally look for the most intense frames (just like a regular photographer!), and hope that when they're all put together, the intensity will be multiplied. 


C___ is an extraordinarily pretty woman, so I was especially nervous about making her into a Stranger. This is still at Yaddo--and C____'s skin turned pink with the cold. I had tried and failed once before to do a picture of her (I screwed up the lighting and made shadows on her face with my head and camera because I was so close). I also knew she was in a rush. This was just after breakfast before the work day would begin. She seemed very forbearing about the results. I found it odd that she came out looking so symmetrical, something like the head on an ancient Greek or Roman coin. 


I was perhaps friendliest with M______ of all the people at Yaddo since we shared a studio building. So I was relatively relaxed. Cold seems to be a feature of many of these pictures, but it was the intense, refreshing kind you get when the air is still--something you never get in windy Boston where I live. 


I was looking forward to taking pictures of F_____. She was very funny and seemed not to be vain, attractive as she is. She turned out to be a bit of a ham, and I also did a little gif animation of her making funny faces. One striking thing is that the sun kept coming out from behind the clouds. I thought it was a disaster as I was photographing. But when I put the picture together, I really liked it. You can see the sun hitting her eyes, but the rest of her face was photographed in cloudy light. 


M____ is someone in my circle in Boston, and this picture was done in Summer 2012 (the Yaddo pictures are from 2010). I had avoided taking her picture because I knew her to be careful about her appearance and, of course, I knew I would make her look grotesque. Again, I seem to have underestimated my sitter, who seem to understand that the pictures are not about them. They are about expression--expression of exactly what, I'm not sure. But in this case, M___ appears to be blinking. And what is striking to me is that she appears angry on the left half of her face and sad on the right. 


This is the same person, M___ , as in the previous picture. I think it might be the ugliest of the series, but somehow is the most emotional. It's kind of striking that I started out doing a kind of bloodless experiment--removing the variable of identity--and ended up producing rather forceful pictures.

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