Interview with Paul Kessel
Dear Dr. Kessel, thank you for accepting an interview on the pages of Fotografiamo. I know you are a clinical psychologist, university professor. Each of us pours our knowledge into his own art. Could you tell us the relationship that exists between your work and psychology?
Thank you for looking at my work and asking me to be interviewed. My career as a clinical psychologist feels like a lifetime ago. Most people assume that it informs my photography. I am not so sure that it does beyond a sustained interest in people.
How did you start taking up photography, and when?
I started photography at about age 13. There was an initial interest followed by almost 60 years of keeping a camera in a drawer at home and taking it out on relatively rare occasions. I started a genuine sustained interest in photography one month short of my 70th birthday when I took a beginning course at The International Center of Photography and thereafter continued studying there for over ten years. I began with an interest in portraits but discovered street photography and became immersed with it ever since. Now, about 14 years later, I never go out without a camera with the exception of now during the pandemic.
New York City seems like the perfect city for street photography. Every corner seems to tell stories, at least so it seems from your work and that of many illustrious colleagues. Do you think it is important to live in a large metropolis to make street photograpy or can it also be done in the backyard? Is it still possible to do street photography since the pandemic started?
I have lived in New York City most of my life and the majority of my photographs were made there. During the past ten months of the CoVid-19 pandemic, a period of staying home almost all of the time was followed by a temporary move out of the city to a rural area. I like to tell myself that pictures emerge everywhere, and that location is not that important. However, without a busy city, my desire dissipates. I seem to need people to photograph. I consider that a shortcoming, but I accept that it is my need. Theoretically, I profess to believe that one can photograph anywhere at any time. Some street photographers are more conceptual and can make a photograph out of practically nothing. Others, like myself ,require something outside of their head, to react to and take a picture. It is always a mixture of concepts and more intuitive immediate reactions with different photographers working more with one or the other.
Your photo of the mother on the subway, which is part of the Underground project, has been called one of the best photos of 2020. Could you tell us why you think that image works and why it speak so well to people of different ethnic backgrounds?
My photograph, “Q Train”, a picture of a young mother and her two daughters on the NYC subway has had more acclaim than any other of my pictures. It was taken in 2019 when the pandemic still had not reached the Unites States, it was total luck that they sat across from me. I had finished shooting after a long day at Coney Island (a beach, boardwalk and amusement park in Brooklyn). I was looking at the back of my camera to see if any photos from the day were worthwhile. None were noteworthy and I felt annoyed that I couldn’t come away with at least one photo worth saving. When I looked up, I saw the family and began to press the shutter as unobtrusively as possible. I guessed at camera settings including focus. I made multiple shots over time. Here is why I think the picture works: First, they are a striking subject, dressed alike with matching colors and attractive in many ways. Secondly, their expressions and interactions are interesting. Third, the composition works and surprisingly, the light is not bad for the subway. Moreover, the mother’s expression in the picture I chose, is ambiguous and open to differing interpretations. Finally, I had given up for the day and was not “trying” to come away with a good picture. It all just happened without interference from my own mental state. As for why it may appeal to people of different ethnic backgrounds, my guess is that it speaks to something universal about being a busy mother.
I know you are a professional golfer. I am deeply convinced that there is a close relationship between photography and sport, and that a certain type of photography trains us to seize opportunities. Could you tell us about the relationship between the two?
I have often compared candid street photography with sports. I played competitive amateur golf most of my life and therefore, I particularly compare it to golf. Perhaps the biggest similarity is the relationship to failure. I mentioned above while discussing the subway photo, that I had just concluded a day of shooting and failed to get a good picture. That is “par for the course”. Exceptional photographs are rare. Candid street photography has built into it, many more failures than successes. It is feasible to come away with some okay shots, but the truly good ones are elusive. That is true for the very best photographers. Likewise, in golf or probably any other sport, the great shot or exceptional game does not occur often. Their rarity is part of what makes them so cherished. Street photography like a sport is mostly quest and not success.
The concept of “getting in the zone” and “flow", when one is pulled along by the process and photographing seems so easy for a period, is akin to an athlete getting into that rare state. In street photography and most sports, many variables are out of one’s control. That is another of many similarities as is luck.
What kind of photographic equipment do you use and why?
I have a few cameras. The variable of equipment is minor compared to the skill of the photographer, the mental state of the photographer, who or what may appear at any moment, and luck. Sometimes I use a Sony A9II mirrorless camera and sometimes a Leica M10. Sometimes I autofocus and sometimes I zone focus. Most modern cameras are excellent and the major place where equipment matters is if the photographer likes the feel of the camera in the hand. Additionally, since the camera is with me all of the time, I prefer to carry something relatively light and be unencumbered by hauling around extra equipment. I most often use a 35mm prime lens and sometimes 28mm. I never use a zoom lens. I believe that sticking with one lens helps train the eye and one is better off zooming with the legs.
Do you think it is essential to always carry a camera with you? What do you think of smartphones as a tool for photography?
I do think that conditions permitting, it is better to treat the camera as you would an article of clothing that is routinely put on before going out. For me, it helps a lot to always have a camera with me. Others may get along ok without doing that.
I have rarely used the phone for photography. I am aware that it has tremendous potential when used well.
How are you experiencing this strange period? Could you tell us about the Solitary project and what it represented for you?
The current pandemic has temporarily stopped my street photography and it is distressing for me. I am exceptionally old for a street photographer (83) and I have some fear that I may never get back into it. However, I eagerly wait to return. My project “Solitary” was done a month or so into the pandemic when I was home alone for long periods of time. I did not want to stop shooting and the project, which was self-portraits, at first alone and then with mannequins, fulfilled my need to keep photographing. I became involved with it and to my surprise, I believe it turned out to be successful.
Who are the authors who most inspire your work, or who would you recommend to study?
I have been inspired by many street photographers, some of the greats and some contemporary photographers including friends. One can google “great street photographers” and see a list of people who have influenced me. I have been fortunate to have personally studied with some of these people on that list. The others, who are no longer with us, have influenced me by way of their books.
Do you think photography has changed your life? Has it opened up new paths, new inner or outer possibilities? Has it opened the doors to worlds you never thought you would come into contact with?
The most important things that photography has added to my life are threefold: At the top of the list are friendships coupled with companionship. I cannot overemphasize how important this is for me. Second, is a renewed sense of purpose and immersion, and last is a feeling of competence with even a small bit of glory.
Where can you buy your books to see your works?
I have self- published about 20 books, most of them street photography books with Blurb Books. They can be purchased or previewed at www.blurb.com or on my website, www.paulkessel.com (under the “books” category). These are not true books in my opinion. I would like to have a published book and aspire to that. For now, my most recent work is in the books “Never the Final Edit, Version 6” and “Solitary”
Paul Kessel have been in about 110 group exhibitions, some by invitation and most from contests. He had 3 solo shows at NYC Galleries, have been finalist in the Miami Street Festival three times (2017, 2018, 2020), and was the Winner in 2020. He was Finalist in the San Francisco Streetfoto Festival, the London Street Festival, and winner of the most recent Los Angeles street contest (“Shooting Around the World_LACP 2020). He was a Lens Culture Street Finalist (2016, 2020) and won 3rd place award in 2020.