These days, the term 'crowd' is often associated with funding projects or sourcing services from the masses surfing the web. But long before Kickstarter or Indiegogo were even conceivable, large gatherings of people have filled our urban spaces to attend public performances, participate in revolutionary movements or simply and randomly swarm together like bees around a hive.

Of course, crowds have also served to inspire artwork – a concept known all too well by James Glisson, the curator of 'A World of Strangers: Crowds in American Art', opening 17 October at the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California. The show, which will run until 4 April 2016, highlights a collection of prints donated to the museum by Hannah Kully and which focuses on American printmakers from the First World War to the mid-20th century.

Though artists have represented people as abstract patterns, in this exhibition, 'they're pictures of people who are recognised as people in scenes from everyday life', says Glisson.

Consider, for example, Walker Evans' Yankee Stadium with Capacity Crowd and Billboard. The 1946 Gelatin silver print, with its prominent corporate logos, appears to be critiquing the advertising industry. 'Evans' photograph surely says something profound, but we're left wondering what that might be,' says Glisson. Not so with Weegee's The First Murder, another print from c. 1950, depicting a group of people with facial expressions ranging from glee to disgust, craning to view a dead body.

The genesis of the exhibit began in 2010 when Glisson was working on his dissertation about how white, middle class artists depicted New York City. Sitting in the New York Public Library for ten hours a day, Glisson spent weeks 'like a human Google', combing through thousands of pages of illustrated magazines. 'I noticed that in a pretty distinct moment, somewhere between 1890 and 1895, these images of people went from being individuated to being nothing but patterns.'

Alas, the show ended up following a different path, steeped in realism. 'Yet,' says Glisson, 'these artists, consciously or unconsciously, seek out patterns as a way to tame and control the overwhelming experience of being in a crowd. Being packed in with others is a hyper-sensory and anxiety producing experience. Patterning offers a way to organise those sensations into something graspable and cognisable, as opposed to frenetic and excessive.'