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“A photograph does not succeed by content alone”, says Paul Kessel, a retired psychologist and professor from New York. “Photography is about vision, persistence, perception, memory, lots of practice, patience, and so many other elements beyond technique”. As someone who made his foray into photography a lot later than most people do, Paul’s street work has garnered various accolades in the USA and globally. His persistence to head out often to capture his next best street photograph won him 1st place at the 2020 Miami Street Photography Festival, among other global accolades.
Much like Paul used to be in his youth, I too grew up as a relatively shy person when it came to interacting with strangers. To an extent, some of this still lingers inside me and exhibits itself whenever I head out for street photography. I’m overly conscious of the world around me and what passersby might think of me and my camera. This has, on many days, prevented me from getting the best possible street picture that I could have snapped. Ironically, my large and noticeable 70-200 telephoto lens later on, became my preferred choice of lens for street photography as it allowed me to snap away from an unnoticeable distance. I suppose good street photography needs a lot of self-confidence, to begin with. Not just in your own technical skills but also in your ability to visualize an artistic frame in your viewfinder while you stand around a street corner or in an alley. During these moments, it helps to put aside the voices in your head that might be coaxing you to look around and see if anyone is staring at you while you frame your image. Paul might have been shy in his formative years, but he now actively pursues his addiction to spontaneously capture life on the streets with his cameras. He approached our interview questions in this manner too, noting that “This parallels my approach to street photography where I respond to what I see with minimum conception.”
The Essential Photo Gear of Paul Kessel
Paul told us
“I like the look and feel of the Leica M10 or Q2 a lot as well as the minimalistic controls. I do believe that if one likes his or her camera, even for superficial reasons such as appearance, it helps getting better photos.”
The Phoblographer: You began photography when you were nearly 70. After many years of being a psychologist and university professor, what drew you to capture images?
Paul Kessel: I began photography late in life. One day with little forethought, I wandered into the International Center of Photography in New York City and registered for the most basic photography course for beginners. I would turn 70 years old in a month and had been at a loss about how to spend my time after I stopped working as a psychologist and professor, coupled with my daughter now having her own apartment and no longer living with me. I had always owned a camera but, with the exception of a few brief spurts of interest, rarely pursued photography. It never occurred to me that I would continue after this course, but I never missed a semester of taking anywhere from one to three courses for the next ten years. The reason why I was so drawn to photography is multifaceted. When I first viewed a photograph I took on a computer, I was amazed and excited about how the camera saw so much that was out of my awareness. It was a reflection, and I had never viewed a photo of a reflection before. My daughter was pursuing a career in photography, and that was another reason that spurred me on. Additionally, I suppose that there was always a latent interest in photography.
The Phoblographer: Does having a background in psychology help you to understand which people are better suited to be in front of your lens?
Paul Kessel: My background in psychology doesn’t seem to have an impact on photography beyond an interest in people. I gravitated to portraits and later street photography. I never pursued landscape photography or anything without people in the frame.
The Phoblographer: What makes the street photography genre so appealing and special for you?
Paul Kessel: After a few years focusing on portraits, I discovered street photography, and I almost immediately realized that it was a perfect fit for me. As a child and all the way up to my early 20’s, I was very shy. I had close friends, but I spent a lot of time wandering the streets alone observing people. In a sense, I had begun street photography early in life, but without a camera. Once I began street photography about ten years ago, I was totally hooked and have a constant urge to go out as much as possible to pursue it. A truly good street photograph is rare, and the constant pursuit to achieve one is addictive. Street photography is mostly about failure, and the possibility of a worthwhile photograph in the context of primarily failure is a recipe for addiction, at least for me.
The Phoblographer: What is your preferred choice of camera and lens for street photos. Please elaborate on this and specifically how this helps achieve your artistic vision while out on the streets
Paul Kessel: I have used various versions of a Sony mirrorless full frame camera with a prime 35mm lens since I began street photography. (I did use a Nikon DSLR with a 24-70 zoom lens in the very beginning.) At times I use a Leica camera with a 28mm lens. This is particularly useful in a crowded setting and when there is sufficient light to zone focus. I like the look and feel of the Leica M10 or Q2 a lot, as well as the minimalistic controls. I do believe that if one likes his or her camera, even for superficial reasons such as appearance, it helps getting better photos. I am constantly conflicted about 28-vs-35 mm as to which one to use. I find it easier to compose with a 35mm lens because there is less to see and deal with when using a wider lens. On the other hand, I do strive for layered photos, with the frame filled up, and for that, 28mm may be better than 35mm. In recent times, I alternate between the two different prime lenses and Sony and Leica as well. I definitely do not recommend doing this. Using one camera and one lens becomes an extension of your vision and, in my opinion, is a better way to operate. For me, I seem to get more consistent results with the Sony and a 35mm lens, but perhaps my better photos are with a Leica and a 28mm lens. I could obsess about this matter endlessly. Probably either option is good as long as it becomes familiar.
The Phoblographer: ‘Q Train’ has won multiple awards at various competitions around the world. How did you happen to chance upon this renaissance painting moment? Tell us about the story behind this image and the accolades it has received.
Paul Kessel: My “Q Train” photograph has achieved quite a bit of acclaim. As with any street photography situation, it was a combination of skill and luck (mostly luck). Sometimes I feel that I should have “retired” after that photo. It has won numerous awards and an amazing amount of discussion and praise. I probably will never come close to getting a comparable picture again. That is a negative aspect of pulling off a photograph which is definitely in the category of over achievement. Of course, the positive outweighs this. Winning best individual photograph in the Miami Street Photography Festival was way beyond my dreams. It seems like yesterday that I first went to the event and when I viewed the photos of the Finalists, felt that this was far out of my league. Third place in Lens Culture Streets was almost equally as incredible to me as was winning a Los Angeles event. Many other awards followed and although I loved the acclaim, the annoying question in my mind was always “what has he done lately?” The quest is what it is all about and not the achievement.
As to how this photograph came about, I had been at Coney Island, a street photographer’s mecca, all day and felt frustrated as I entered the subway to go home because I realized I had no photos worth keeping. I was looking at my failures on the back of the camera when I glanced up and saw this mother and her two young daughters, dressed in matching outfits and totally color coordinated including hair and skin. They appeared to be Scandinavian and stood out drastically from others on the subway. I wanted to take candid shots of this good fortune a few feet away from me but realized that I had the Leica camera without autofocus in a fairly dim subway car. Zone focusing was out of the question. I estimated the distance, set ISO to 3200 (much higher than I have ever used), and over the next half hour pressed the shutter many times with the camera haphazardly aimed from my lap. Somehow, I was never seen and somehow the pictures were straight enough and exposed well enough and focused adequately to make decent pictures with some help from Adobe Lightroom in post processing. I chose one of the shots to print, although any of them would have worked out. It was remarkable luck coupled with skill I never knew I had, to get the result.
The Phoblographer: Do you consider awards to be a happy byproduct of good photography? Can chasing images for the sake of awards be useful or damaging to one’s skills? Would you say modern street photography is more about good work or marketing?
Paul Kessel: Chasing images for the sake of rewards definitely is not the way to pursue street photography or any other genre of photography. As I mentioned earlier, the quest is the game and not the rewards from the quest. However, for me, competing is something I seem to need. I was a competitive amateur golfer throughout my life and when I had to give up golf because of age and injury, photography, in a way, took its place. I consider what I do more of a sport than art. In my mind, there are many similarities between street photography and sports. To mention just a few: Failure happens much more than success. Occasionally one may get into that rarified “zone” or “flow”. It happens very little, but when it does occur, one can transcend oneself. There are common analogies to “hunting” and “fishing”. Vision is essential to both photography and sports.
That said, for most street photographers, particularly the good ones, competing in contests is not essential or even worthwhile. Moreover, success is as much about the jurors as the merit of the photographs, and mostly, unfortunately, contests and festivals are a business. I enjoy contests and festivals for my own reasons. They have been good to me and for me. I am aware that success in contests, number of Instagram followers, and Facebook “likes” are not really what quality photography is about. Too often, acclaimed photographers are good at marketing and networking and less accomplished at photography. Fundamentals of good street photography such as composition, light, background, and vantage point, and particularly editing, are often ignored by good marketers and networkers, with the ability to create a forgettable “one-line joke” in the content of their pictures. Attention to geometry and unexpected juxtapositions can be excellent (Cartier-Bresson’s jumping over the puddle photograph is a prototype for this) but a photograph does not succeed by content alone.
The Phoblographer: What non-technical skills or characteristics should be honed the most, in order for us to improve our vision for street photography?
Paul Kessel: Photography is about vision, persistence, perception, memory, lots of practice, patience, and so many other elements beyond technique. Mostly it is about the photographer and his or her complexities and experience. Almost anyone can learn technique in time. Any camera and lens can do the job. The more interesting and open the photographer, the better the pictures. Moreover, because a truly exceptional photograph is so rare, it takes a great deal of time on the street and hard work. In general, interesting people make interesting photos.
The Phoblographer: Zone focusing for street photography – a time tested concept or something that’s becoming irrelevant with the super fast auto focusing of modern cameras?
Paul Kessel: I have noticed that lots of the better street photographers use zone focus. However, autofocus is getting better and faster. The new Sony Alpha 1 camera has autofocus capability that rivals zone focusing. It depends on the sort of scene being photographed. Some shots require great speed and others do not.
The Phoblographer: What makes you want to snap the shutter to capture moments? Have you taught yourself to just bring the camera to your eye and fire when you notice something emotional? How often does this result in keepers vs toss aways?
Paul Kessel: Some people snap away constantly and take over a thousand shots in a day. Others wait for special moments and press the shutter relatively infrequently. I fall into the latter category. I do not search for “emotional moments”. I believe that photographers are not capable of seeing “emotions”. The best we can do is catch expressions and gestures which may or may not reflect an emotional state or elicit emotion in the viewer. I try to press the shutter when light, background, and composition coupled with content that includes people or interactions that interest me fall into place. Admittedly, sometimes the composition is largely contingent on luck more than my perceptual ability.
The Phoblographer: Candid street scenes or street portraits – which ones bring you more joy to capture? Tell us of your most memorable moment while capturing one of these
Paul Kessel: Street portraits do not interest me nearly as much as candid street scenes. I do find it much easier to look for one individual than to look for a scene. Most of my pictures end up as candid street portraits because I find it so hard to see an entire scene with multiple people and multiple things going on. That is a complex perceptual activity. However, if I let go of “trying”, the camera sees things in the periphery that I fail to see at least, consciously, and I may get an interesting and layered street scene. Trying to get a good picture is the worst way to achieve one for most people. Another way to achieve a street scene is to imagine a stage in front of me, find someone or something on that stage which will linger for a while as an anchor, and wait for the stage to fill up with the actors. I learned this from Joel Meyerowitz, and later it was reinforced by Gus Powell. Meyerowitz is, of course, one of the greats in the history of street photography, and Powell is a wonderful contemporary photographer and teacher. He has a strong connection to Meyerowitz.
An example of a street scene I have achieved is when I was part of a crowd, many with cameras, waiting for the model, Kate Moss, to emerge from a hotel. I realized that I had no chance to compete with the paparazzi for space and a vantage point. I remembered Winogrand’s knack for turning around and photographing people looking at something noteworthy rather than the thing or person itself. I did not compose. I just turned and shot. It resulted in one of my better photographs with multiple people, each separated from the others in their own space.
I guess I take back my comment at the beginning of the interview that my experience as a psychologist has minimum impact on my photography. I do believe that much of what we do and experience is unconscious or at least not in conscious focus and that letting things happen rather than trying hard to make something happen yields better results. I have learned this from sports as well as practicing psychology; letting go and allowing things to emerge works better for all but the most highly conceptual people. There are different personality types, and the recipe for a successful photo differs among them.
The Phoblographer: With smartphones having more than capable cameras these days, would you say that everyone is capable of being a street photographer now? Tell us why or why not
Paul Kessel: Smartphones are getting better at an accelerated rate. Excellent photos can be achieved with them but not by me. I have almost no experience practicing street photography with a phone, so I have no informed comments about this. I can only repeat what was alluded to earlier. The photographer is the essential ingredient in the photograph. The camera or phone camera is not. Therefore, smartphones definitely do not make everyone capable of being a street photographer.
The Phoblographer: What inspires you to create books like ‘Hauptbahnhof’, ’Solitary’ and the others in your collection? Does the inspiration start after a particular image is captured, or do you work on a concept first and then head out to fill the pages?
Paul Kessel: I have self-published nineteen “Blub” Books. In almost every instance, the only person that sees them is me. It is a way to tie a project together and keep track of my work with something tangible. For me, pixels on a screen are not the final photograph. I print all of my better photos, and the books are an extension of this. Sometimes I have a concept first and then go out to express it in pictures. That concept is often as simple as a particular place. More often than not, the concept emerges from the edit of photos already completed. I would love to have a real published book, but my desire doesn’t seem sufficient to work hard at the networking and other details required to accomplish this.
The Phoblographer: I’ve visited NYC twice and it is by far, my favourite place in the world for street photography. What are some of your favourite areas in the city for this and what makes them more special than the others?
Paul Kessel: Finding a location to photograph is, in many ways, the most difficult part of the process. Most of my work has been in New York City, primarily in Manhattan, where I live. Until the pandemic, my favorite places have been Fifth Avenue, Soho, Eighth Avenue, Midtown, and Coney Island and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Coney Island may be my favorite because it consists of multiple types of locations directly next to each other (beach, boardwalk, streets, amusement park, subway) as well as a remarkable variety of people. Additionally, the cool ocean breeze is a good respite from Manhattan. Eighth Avenue is gritty, and Fifth Avenue is the opposite of gritty. Soho has good light because the buildings are not as tall as other locations and also loads of attractive young men and woman. Midtown is usually loaded with layer upon layer of people. Williamsburg has two worlds adjacent to each other; hipsters and a vast Hassidic Jewish community.
The Phoblographer: Do we all have some responsibility to document the world around us these days, since everyone has a camera at hand in their smartphones?
Paul Kessel: I feel no particular responsibility to document the world around me. Better photographers than I am are being paid to do this, and they do it well. My goal is to add a few more good photographs to my portfolio.