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September 14, 2020


Photography by Paul Kessel
Interview by Melanie Meggs

Paul Kessel is a street photographer from New York City where he was born and has lived most of his life. With a previous career in clinical psychology, psychoanalysis and university teaching, Paul started his photography journey just before his 70th birthday, enrolling into photography classes at The International Center of Photography. Over the course of his studies he developed a strong interest in candid street photography. Now thirteen years later, Paul has been in over eighty group exhibitions, has had four solo shows, has won a number of awards and has had his work published.

Paul's style has evolved from asking people to photograph them, to candid portraits, to candid street scenes. He once was a competitive amateur golfer and he treats street photography as a sport, comparing the similarity to playing golf. "Usually a warm-up period is required, then some momentum is established, and there is a good shot among many forgettable ones."

Until the pandemic, Paul rarely missed a day of photographing. That has essentially stopped in recent months. He has partially satisfied his itchy shooting finger by doing a self-portrait project at home. But he is very eager to get back out shooting on the streets again.

Paul shares with us his photography series 'Hauptbahnhof', about the main train station in Frankfurt, Germany which is a major hub for travel in Europe. It is a place that Paul has spent a lot of time there and some of that time was personally meaningful to him. All his photographs are candid, each telling a story, isolating his subject among layers of commotion of the main train station.


TPL: Paul please tell us more about your project HAUPTBAHNHOF.

PK: Over the past fifty years, I have been to Frankfurt Germany almost yearly and I also lived in the city for two years. Of course, over all of that time, many life events occurred including highly emotional ones, particularly divorce and child custody issues. Countless times, I have passed through the main train station. It is called 'Hauptbahnof'. After I began candid street photography, about eight years ago, I became more aware of light and this venue has an interesting skylight. Because of that, I went there to photograph. I had no project in mind beyond photographing people that interested me and doing it fairly close up. Eventually, I had enough photos to think of it as a project.

TPL: You mentioned that you went unnoticed. How did you do go about achieving this?

PK: My camera has a flip down back screen, and I looked down at it after I spotted a potential subject walking through or standing in decent light. I pretended I was fiddling with the camera.

TPL: What drew you to photography or is it something that you were always interested in?

PK: I always owned a camera and had a latent interest in photography. However, it was put away in a drawer almost all of the time. There were relatively infrequent periods of photographing until I decided to pursue it seriously in 2008. The primary reason I began, is that my daughter started a career in photography at age 23. Her mother had an MFA degree in video and prior to her video interest, she studied photography in college and photographed my daughter a lot. My daughter eventually became a prop stylist and frequently works with photographers.

TPL: Where do you find your inspiration?

PK: I am inspired by my enjoyment of the process, the quest for the elusive exceptional photograph, the sense of belonging to a community of street photographers, friendships with others pursuing the same goals as myself, and probably the hope of making enough good pictures to have a published book.

TPL: Is there anything you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?

PK: The aesthetics of light and composition coupled with a lifetime fascination of people and how they present themselves is sufficient. In more recent years, I have become more interested in how the photograph will look than the people in the photograph. Occasionally, a social issue may be part of what I am trying to express.

TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?

PK: There are many photographers whom I admire. This includes those in the history of photography, teachers, and contemporaries. I will not attempt to mention them all. I don’t dare mention contemporaries as I don’t want to be in the position of excluding some of my friends. A good number of them are becoming well known as street photographers.

Most certainly, Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, and Meyerowitz have been big influences. Alex Webb and Constantine Manos have been as well. I mention the latter two separately because the way Webb includes multiple layers and multiple activities in some of his amazing compositions and how Manos fills the frame are both inspiring and frustrating. I go after it, but I can’t do it. The quest keeps me going.

TPL: What has been the best advice/criticism you have ever received...that you have learned from?

PK: 1. Appreciate the friendships derived from photography and don’t be so hard on myself regarding outcome.
2. Fifty really good pictures in a lifetime is success.

TPL: Do you prefer to shoot alone or with friends?

PK: I usually shoot alone. However, I find that some of my better photographs come when shooting with others. I function better with companionship. I find that this is true for me among many activities.

TPL: How does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?

PK: I am often out for many hours at a time and I do not want to be burdened by heavy equipment. All I carry is one camera with one prime lens. I prefer a full frame camera. That preference increases the weight a bit. I either use a Sony A9II mirrorless camera or a Leica M10. With both I use a 35mm lens. If I know that I will be shooting in a setting with a dense crowd, I use a 28mm lens. The cameras in this project were a Sony A7s in the beginning followed by a Sony A9. All pictures were made with a 35mm lens.