Catching The Hawks Mid-Flight

646 pictures. 57 hours of work. 123 layers. And 1 new Hawks fan. The story behind our photo spread. 

Photographer Pelle Cass is famous for his depictions of public spaces, crowding the frame with as many people as possible in an effort to show the full spectrum of activity that happens from a single vantage. When it comes to a basketball court, the permutations of movement really are endless. “Every move [a player] made was almost picturesque,” Cass told us. Especially for a team like the Atlanta Hawks, whose relentless play and frenetic pace have led them from obscurity to the top of the league.

And so to capture the Hawks for our Hustle issueMaxim sent Cass to Atlanta to shoot the Hawks in their natural element. The numbers involved in putting the photograph together (on a tight deadline no less) were truly staggering:

Pictures taken for the published image: 646

Time elapsed: about 75 minutes (the whole second half)

Total pictures taken on shoot: 2361

Layers in final photo: 123

Players on Hawks Roster: 14

Depicted in photo: 11

Raptors depicted: 0

Time spent Photoshopping image: 57 hours over 3 days

Points scored by Toronto Raptors: 105

By Hawks, sadly: 80

Minimum new Hawks fans: 1

We spoke to Cass after the issue wrapped about basketball, his technique, and how the Hawks won a Celtics fan over. 

 Approaching the shoot, what were you looking for when it came to the Hawks?

Well when I do these things, I look for a lot of action, of course. Because of the way I work, it’s peculiar. What I look for is people all over the court. So it’s easy enough to find people at the top of the key or in their favorite shooting spots but it’s hard to find somebody walking or stumbling along the baseline on the floor or anything unusual. So those are the things that I look for and I take hundreds of pictures. So there are a lot of the ordinary things too. But it’s the out-of-the-way things that I look for especially.

One of my favorite pieces of action is where you have Kyle Korver falling out of bounds near the far baseline.

That picture of Korver sets the angles of the court, really. He’s the focal point. It’s kind of marginal action but it’s also hard to miss him. That’s the kind of picture I look for. There are sports photographers who can capture the most dramatic dunk or the emotion on a player’s face and that’s not what I do.

Had you ever done a sporting event before?

I’ve done kids playing in a park and things like that, so it’s extremely similar to a vantage point that was like this but no, nothing like this.

Once you take all the photos, what’s the first step in compiling what you do?

The first step is I look at one or two images form each set-up to see if the lighting is good – the lighting in this case was all the same – to see if the angle is good, any technical concerns, like the focus. So I look at one picture and then I click through as fast as I can through every image to see if there’s some interesting  things happening. And I kind of start with the most interesting poses or pictures; like the Korver one I knew beforehand that I wanted that one in there. So I pick a few key ones like that. I don’t want to focus on Korver too much, but he’s way up in the air at the top of the key with the jump shot. There are a few like that, that as I go through, they stick out to me. I like the ones that are more like action shots, so I was drawn to more of those as I was going through. And then it becomes more like a jigsaw puzzle, where I’m starting it with certain images and then I’m looking for shapes that interlock or cross or create a rhythm that I already have with the other images. If I did it from scratch again, it would probably come out a different way with a different feeling, I think.

What was something that took you by surprise when you were shooting the game, or something you kind of hadn’t realized about basketball?

I wasn’t watching the score too closely because I was occupied photographing but when I went through the pictures I noticed that nobody dunked, very few people actually got into the lane, there were a lot of jump shots and they lost the game by 30 points.  Almost everything’s a surprise: there’s a guy in the crowd raising his hand looking off to where there’s apparently no action off the screen. I mentioned the monitors earlier; I didn’t notice until afterwards that a little tiny version of the game was happening right in front of my lens, also. There are kids…Kids are handy because they always fill low spots in my picture. There was some kid parading around the court at one point and I didn’t notice him at all until I was going through the pictures. When I’m photographing, my eyes tends to look at the center of the picture. I’m used to that. But all kinds of things are happening on the edges and that’s what I’m interested in.

It’s interesting how the actual score of the game really affected what shots you were able to get and the range of shots, because obviously once a team falls behind they’re trying a lot more jump shots and three-pointers and trying to get back into the game and taking as little time off the clock as possible to do that. Possibly if it’s a lot more competitive game, you have a lot more dunking or foul shots.

Yeah, I think that’s true. I’m  a basketball fan but I’m not a notable analyst. But I think that’s right.

Each of the basketballs that are up in the air, do they belong to a player or are some of them just free floating?

Very few of them belong to the players depicted. I think that one of Korver’s right at the top of the key, that might be his shot coming off. I’m not sure, I’d have to check back at the original picture if you want.

I’m just kind of interested as people dissect the piece and look at it.

A lot of them were taken during warm-up so they aren’t live balls at all. And a lot of them are bouncing, obviously. But usually they’re disassociated from the player.

Looking at the action on the floor, you have some people diving and jumping, were you struck by the difference in movements from doing a street scene where people are not really acrobatic as opposed to basketball players who are taking up all of this space?

When I shoot things, I’m looking for people who are running or doing expressive things, and what I did notice about these guys is that they have incredibly expressive bodies. Their gestures say a lot more than many ordinary peoples’. Every move they made was almost picturesque. With their long limbs and fingers that show from across the arena, it makes you appreciate how incredible looking they are.

And in terms of when you’re shooting outside and shooting with this brightly lit arena, what are the advantages of shooting in such a controlled environment?

Well, I like chaos and I like change, so afterwards it’s okay if the sun goes behind the clouds or something gets messed up. With that said, I appreciated the lighting staying the same. I never had to adjust any individual brightness setting. It was always the same and it made it easier.

So once you go through all of the pictures and you’ve picked out all of the things that are striking to you, what is your process – I mean, not so much in detail that you give away the patent-

Well, I think that anyone who knows Photoshop a little bit would be able to figure it out.

Do you start with an empty court?

I look for the emptiest possible court and the ideal thing would be an empty arena. I wasn’t able to do that because it was filled all day with middle school games and other people and events. So the arena wasn’t filled but there were people of course which was another surprise to me. And then my method is to leave people in. I never change the position. That’s really important to me because I don’t want this to be just a pure fantasy. All this stuff really happened exactly in the places we see. It just happened in an hour, not in an instant like a regular photograph we would see.

How do you find the right balance to give the sense of chaos that you feel fits with the piece?

That’s hard to explain. That’s more of the feeling side of the artistic process instead of the technical side. I like composition and movement and I like this kind of pattern. But it’s done by feel. You know, I have a background in art history and some painting, it’s just a feel for composition. There’s a school of painting, all-over painting, Jackson Pollock painting where you try to emphasize every part of the canvas equally. I’ve always sort of done that. There should be something interesting, some sort of action going on everywhere.

Did you develop any favorites among the players? Like, “Oh man, this guy keeps doing interesting stuff…”

I got to like the Hawks even though it was a bad performance. I wasn’t charmed by their incredible performance because they didn’t play very well but I got a little sense of what they were like when I sat on the floor. They seemed like okay guys, not like superstars. I got to like Schroder, partly because he’s small and I’m small. I’m much smaller compared to an NBA player but I tend to like small guys. I guess it’s also one of those things because he’s easy to recognize, but I also like the way he plays.

The Hawks run a spread offense, so compared to teams that run isolated offenses, I’d figure you’d have  much less selection where the pacing and spacing is much less pronounced.

Another thing I did notice that I wasn’t really aware of was how repetitious their positioning is. I know they have positions but because I wanted to find players in different areas of the court… Like Teague comes down in a certain pattern almost every time. I was shocked by how repetitious it is. This is something I learned when I do these pictures; it looks like chaos, people walking all over a street scene and there’s no order. But people form these patterns that you have to be pretty observant to see or take a lot of pictures.

I think it’s interesting, especially with the rise of analytics in basketball and the various sensors that they’ve now put on the court that gives spacing and pacing and all kinds of stuff. The visual analysis that you translate into pieces of art has now become something that is discussed at the highest levels of basketball management.

It’s kind of a statistical way of looking at things. I kind of thought if I did this properly, I could summarize the two hours of game film, in one picture. And I don’t think the coach would be too interested in this picture for basketball technique but I could imagine a picture like this that provides information in such a way that video provides.

 As a basketball fan and as a spectator how do you see the Eastern Conference playing out this year?

Well, I’m not an expert enough to really give an opinion on it. One thing that did happen is I’m definitely a Hawks fan. I’m a Celtics fan by region, I live in Boston. So now I’m really happy to have a good team to follow that I didn’t know as much about. 

Photos by Pelle Cass